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Farallon Islands Whale Watch Sightings: November 11, 2016

By Chris Biertuempfel

Warm sunshine surrounded us as we departed San Francisco Bay. Passengers enjoyed crisp views of the Golden Gate Bridge as we passed under the northern portion of the 1.7 mile span.

Passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge aboard the Salty Lady. © Chris Biertuempfel

However, as we cruised by Point Bonita, visibility began declining and within 20 minutes we were passing through dense fog on our way to the Farallon Islands.

© Chris Biertuempfel

At about 10:40 am, after several stops to observe harbor seals and a few elusive humpback whales, we came across Southeast Farallon Island. Its outline and research facilities were shrouded in mist.

Fog enshrouds the Farallon Islands. © Chris Biertuempfel

After thoroughly exploring the rugged coastline of the islands, we took off for the edge of the continental shelf in search of marine mammals and pelagic birds. Before reaching the shelf, we came across a small group of humpback whales. There were 4 whales surfacing sporadically in all directions, feeding just below the surface.

The dorsal fin of a humpback whale. © Chris Biertuempfel

While observing these humpbacks, a group of Dall’s porpoises began riding our bow wake—weaving back and forth in a tight pod. Their darting movements were punctuated with the trademark “rooster tail” wake Dall’s porpoise create when their dorsal fin breaks the surface.

A Dall's porpoise breaks the surface. © Chris Biertuempfel

After the exhilarating encounter with the porpoises, we returned to the Farallon Islands for one final look before we headed back to the San Francisco Bay. As we entered shallower waters, we spotted a Western Gull with a recently captured tuna crab in its beak.

A Western Gull dining on a tuna crab. © Chris Biertuempfel

Moments later we saw a northern fur seal bobbing gently at the surface with a buoyant clump of marine vegetation. Spending the majority of their lives in the open ocean, fur seals have developed various methods to relax at the surface in the absence of land.

A fur seal floats with its makeshift raft. © Chris Biertuempfel

As we parted from this fur seal and its makeshift raft, a whale noisily surfaced about 200 yards away and we turned to watch. After a few surfacing events, the lone humpback whale, traveling in the direction of the fur seal, engaged in a final deep dive exposing its fluke (tail) briefly as it slid underwater with the Farallon Islands in view.

A humpback fluke in front of the Farallon Islands. © Chris Biertuempfel


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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