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Farallon Islands Whale Watch Sightings: May 20, 2017

By Chris Biertuempfel

Upon departure from the dock on our May 20th Farallon Islands whale watching trip, our captain spotted a lone humpback whale deep inside San Francisco Bay, near Sausalito, setting the stage for a great day! The morning fog restricted our visibility to just a few hundred yards, but we were still able to spot another humpback just west of the Golden Gate Bridge.

A humpback whale in San Francisco Bay. © Chris Biertuempfel

As the tour continued toward the Farallones, the fog lifted and we saw a tall, columnar blow off the starboard bow (right front) of the boat. Upon closer investigation, it was a single blue whale moving slowly northwest. This whale surfaced a few more times, providing fantastic views before diving out of view. We then continued on, and in a short time reached southeast Farallon Island.

A blue whale seen on May 20. © Chris Biertuempfel

The islands were alive with bird and sea lion activity. With the sun out and great visibility, we identified a dozen species of seabirds, including Tufted Puffins and Red Phalaropes.

The Farallon Islands were alive with seabird and sea lion activity. © Chris Biertuempfel

As we circumnavigated the islands, we came across a mottled gray whale near Seal Rock. The whale surfaced several times before exposing its fluke to passengers.

A gray whale seen on May 20. © Chris Biertuempfel

After the gray whale sighting, we briefly viewed a group of northern fur seals in the water near Maintop Island before we continued toward the continental shelf drop-off a few miles past the Farallones. On our way to the shelf, we came across a humpback whale with a distinctive notch in its tail that dove repeatedly.

A humpback whale with a distinctive notch in its fluke. © Chris Biertuempfel

While this whale was in view we also came upon a host of seabirds including numerous Pink-footed Shearwaters and several Black-footed Albatross, like this one gliding above the swell.

A Black-footed Albatross glides above the swell. © Chris Biertuempfel

After an extended viewing of the albatrosses and a few more humpback whale sightings, we began our journey back to San Francisco. Reports were coming in of whales located right outside the bay. As we made our final approach we saw one humpback off our starboard (right side) with China Beach in the background and another humpback directly between us and the bridge. It was a great day!

A humpback in front of the Golden Gate Bridge on May 20. © Chris Biertuempfel

Some highlights of the day include:

  • 20 humpback whales
  • 2 blue whales
  • 2 gray whales
  • California sea lions
  • Stellar sea lions
  • Northern fur seals
  • Harbor seals
  • Tufted Puffins
  • Red Phalaropes
  • Pink-footed Shearwaters
  • Sabine’s Gulls
  • Black-footed Albatross
  • Brandt’s Cormorants
  • Pacific Loons
  • Brown Pelicans
  • Sooty Shearwaters
  • Common Murres
  • Cassin’s Auklets
  • Rhinoceros Auklets
  • Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels

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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