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Farallon Islands Whale Watch Sightings: September 10, 2016

By Chris Biertuempfel

A humpback whale in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. © Chris Biertuempfel

Within an hour of leaving San Francisco Bay we had our first sighting on a trip that witnessed over 100 humpback whales. At 8:48am we came across a pair of humpbacks surfacing and feeding together. 15 minutes after we first spotted them, these whales began surfacing separately, close to each other but at different intervals. We were able to tell the two apart only due to their distinctly different dorsal fins visible when surfacing.

>> Click here to see all the photos and three videos from this trip.

Two humpback whales with distinctive dorsal fins. © Chris Biertuempfel

At 9:45 we spotted another pair of whales on the southern horizon as we moved west. It was two more humpback whales that were feeding near the surface. Repeatedly we witnessed them lunge feed together, coming straight up out of the ocean with mouths full of fish while scrambling seabirds swooped into the area scooping up any leftovers.

A feeding humpback whale. © Chris Biertuempfel

In addition to lunge feeding, we saw many whales fluking and taking deep dives. Between a few photographers on board, we accumulated hundreds of fluke ID photos, which led to positive identifications of 25 individual whales. If you’re interested in how we identify individual whales on Oceanic Society trips, you can read up on the process here.

Fluke ID photos help identify individual whales. © Chris Biertuempfel

The highlight of the trip came after we circled the Farallon Islands and went out to the continental shelf where the ocean floor goes from 300 feet to 3000 very rapidly. Here we soon came across a number of humpbacks and at least 15 were visible all over the horizon for well over two hours. Huge columns of baitfish about 100 feet deep were present in this area and we watched groups of 8-10 humpback whales dive (presumably to feed on the baitfish schools) and then return a few minutes later to catch their breath by floating at the surface. They did this over and over and we simply floated, engines off, and enjoyed the show.

A large group of humpback whales surrounded us. © Chris Biertuempfel

In total we saw over 100 humpback whales displaying all sorts of surfacing behavior including lunge feeding, pec-slapping, breaching, and fluking. We also witnessed 8 blue whales traveling along the continental shelf surfacing in tandem. It was a remarkable day.


Chris Biertuempfel manages Oceanic Society’s California-based programs, continuing the non-profit’s tradition of ocean faring expeditions that began in 1972. Also, he leads whale-centric expeditions in California and Mexico as a naturalist. His work as a photographer from such trips has been featured in several media outlets, including the San Francisco Chronicle and ABC News.


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