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Farallon Islands Whale Watch Sightings: August 26, 2017

By Cara Gallagher

On this foggy August morning, our boat full of ocean enthusiasts headed out under the Golden Gate. The fog was so dense, there were times we couldn’t see the shoreline as we motored along. On the way out to the Farallon Islands, we spotted numerous ocean sunfish (Mola mola) of all sizes basking in what little sunlight there was this morning.

An ocean sunfish basking near the surface. © Cara Gallagher

After about 2 hours of travelling through calm seas we made it to the North Farallones. Passengers were admiring the rocky shoreline and tiny Cassin’s Auklets floating on the surface, when, suddenly, a humpback whale surfaced near our boat. Then, another appeared ahead of us, right near the islands. We watched the whales intently and speculated it may have been a cow and her calf. Right before we were ready to head off, the smaller whale breached completely above the sea surface, much to our passengers’ delight.

A humpback whale dives in front of North Farallon Island. © Cara Gallagher

The fog was beginning to clear up now and we headed towards the continental shelf drop off. After about a half an hour, we spotted a massive spout and knew we’d found a blue whale: the largest animal to ever exist. This blue whale was especially interesting as it had no dorsal fin and one side of its flukes was curled under its body. It surfaced several times before heading off.

A blue whale dives exposing its curled left fluke. © Cara Gallagher

After leaving the blue, we headed towards the South Farallones and saw a myriad of seabird species on our way including Sooty Shearwaters, Rhinoceros Auklets, and a Black-footed Albatross. After arriving at the islands, we were greeted by a small boat waiting to pick up one of the passengers on the Salty Lady, a Point Blue scientist who would spend the next four weeks working on the Farallones. We then circled the islands and got views of three different species of pinnipeds. Steller’s and California sea lions and their pups relaxed on the rocky cliffs while northern fur seals swam in the waters at the foot of the islands.

A California sea lion showing off its prodigious flipping abilities. © Cara Gallagher

We also spotted many species of seabird as they sat on the water’s surface and flew by our boat. Tufted Puffins, Pelagic Cormorants, and Western Gulls were a few of the many birds spotted at the islands.

A tufted puffin floating at the surface near the Farallones. © Cara Gallagher

Eventually, we left the Farallones and continued south in search of more interesting marine species. About a half an hour later, we came upon three humpback whales in the shimmering sea. They lunged at the surface a few times, emerging with their throats full of water and food.

A humpback whale lunge feeding at the surface. © Cara Gallagher

After a short absence, one whale surprised us by surfacing right next to the boat. The hitchhiking barnacles on its fluke tips were visible to even the naked eye.

A humpback whale's heavily barnacled flukes. © Cara Gallagher

After this exciting encounter, we started to head back to San Francisco Bay. En route, we saw many father and chick pairs of Common Murres sitting on the ocean surface. The chicks were waiting patiently while their fathers dove down to catch them tiny fishes to eat. In a few more weeks many of these chicks will have grown large enough to fend for themselves, but for now they stick close to their father’s side.

A father-chick pair of Common Murres. © Cara Gallagher

As we closed in on the Golden Gate Bridge, we spotted a group of sailboats forming a rough circle. Then, from the center, a humpback whale breached into the air. Shortly thereafter, the whale repeatedly slapped the surface with its large pectoral fins, hitting the water with a large smack each time.

A humpback whale slaps the surface with its pectoral fin, much to nearby sailors' delight. © Cara Gallagher

As we pulled into port we were welcomed back by a flock of Brown Pelicans flying in formation. Our journey was over, but were happy that our fog-filled morning had transitioned into an amazing day full of excitement! For the chance to see some of the incredible species encountered on this voyage join the Oceanic Society on one of our trips out to the Farallon Islands!


Cara Gallagher is a volunteer with Oceanic Society and is currently working with Golden Gate Cetacean Research on the San Francisco Bay harbor porpoise project. Cara recently completed her Master’s degree at San Francisco State University’s Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies. Cara previously completed an Oceans Research internship in South Africa, studying marine predators such as great white sharks, humpback dolphins, and right whales. Cara plans to pursue a doctorate degree in the Fall of 2017 studying the implications of wind turbine development on harbor porpoises in the North Sea.


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