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2019 Farallon Islands Whale Watching Season Recap

By Chris Biertuempfel

It started with a splash: May 5, 2019

On just the second trip of our 2019 Farallon Islands whale watching season, we had one of the best whale spectacles in recent memory. Oceanic Society naturalist Chris Pincetich recorded over a dozen humpbacks that day, but one whale stole the show, breaching repeatedly with a backdrop of Southeast Farallon Island.

A breaching humpback near the Farallon Islands. © Chris Biertuempfel

The charismatic behavior didn’t stop there as this whale also slapped the water with its immense pectoral fins, creating booming vibrations we could feel through the hull of the boat. This individual fluked a number of times right in front of the biologist residences on the Farallones, diving deep before typically returning to the surface with a flourish.

© Chris Biertuempfel

Fortunately for us, whale shows like these continued throughout the season with more than 1000 humpback whales recorded from May-November. We also had a late-season spike in blue whale sightings, with the first weekend of November recording 13 blue whales in just 2 days. Featuring an average of 22 humpbacks seen per trip, and 100% of trips seeing at least one whale, it was a successful season by any measure.

In November we saw 13 blue whales in just 2 days. © Rhys Watkin

Perhaps the most exciting trip of the year came on August 24 when a humpback whale feeding frenzy coincided with some less commonly seen cetaceans for our area. Oceanic Society naturalist Roger Harris counted 55 humpbacks on that day, along with 4 fin whales and 4 killer whales, all very near the Farallon Islands.

A spectacular humpback feeding frenzy on August 24. © Chris Biertuempfel

A series of photographs and the help of analysts from Happywhale and the California Killer Whale Project identified these killer whales as CA transients that, although infrequently seen, historically have a penchant for hanging around the Farallon Islands. Public interest and enthusiasm for these exciting sightings culminated in a San Francisco Chronicle featured article and droves of passengers signing up to see what was going on at the Farallones for themselves.

Fin whale (top), killer whales (bottom). © Chris Biertuempfel

Strong sightings continued throughout the season with one of the last trips of the year on November 17th featuring 21 humpback whales. Oceanic Society photographer and naturalist assistant, Rhys Watkin, joined the vast majority of trips this season providing our passengers with complimentary photos as well as fluke photographs used to identify whales. A collection of Rhys’ best shots of the year is linked here to be viewed online.

If you haven’t already, check out our whale watching programs in California offered year-round. We will be back taking trips to the Farallones in April 2020.


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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