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Farallon Islands Whale Watch Sightings: May 30 and 31, 2015

By Nancy Heaton

The fluke of a humpback whale. © Izzy Szczepaniak

Saturday's Farallon Islands Whale Watching Trip headed out on calm seas to the Southeast Farallon Islands (SEFI), then moved to the continental shelf drop off, then 8 miles south. Passengers observed:

  1. Two very large Stellar sea lions chasing each other near Sugarloaf at Southeast Farallon Island.
  2. Several very large (1,000 lb) Mola mola, or ocean sunfish (the heaviest known bony fish in the world) right by the boat
  3. Dolphins riding the bow.

At different times, the group spotted 8 humpback whales, with 1 pair being a juvenile and an adult. The tail of the juvenile was damaged showing he had been attacked by an orca at some point, but the wound had healed, not fresh.

A tufted puffin. © Izzy Szczepaniak

The whales arrived at different times. First was a single whale spotted about 7 miles southwest of the islands, showing backs and blows; then 2 whales showing backs, blows and flukes. Another 2 whales arrived a mile later, one being the juvenile with major raking on the underside of the tail from the attack, 2 more whales were sighted another mile later, and a final whale exhibiting feeding behavior at the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge. Additional sightings included: California sea lions, northern (Stellar) sea lion, 5-10 harbor seals, and 10 harbor porpoise, Aurelia aurita (moon jelly), Velella velella (the floating electric blue, glass-like sea creatures belonging to a diverse phylum of animals including corals and jellyfish), and Fucellia evermanni (kelp fly). Bird sightings included: western grebe, black-footed albatross, sooty shearwater, brown pelican, double breasted cormorant, Brandt's cormorant, Pelagic cormorant, black oyster catcher, California gull, western gull, elegant tern, common murre, pigeon guillemot, Cassin's auklet, rhinoceros auklet, and a tufted puffin.

Sunday's group headed out with a high fog, slight winds and calm, flat glassy seas, and were rewarded throughout the day with a total of 25 humpback whales! An abundance of mackerel just past Point Bonita, attracted the first humpback whale and the boat stayed with him for 30 minutes. Between Point Bonita and the Golden Gate Bridge, two large container ships passed and were within just a few hundred meters of the animal. Passengers also observed 5 harbor porpoises, probably feeding on the mackerel as well. The boat continued west 20 miles and observers saw 2 humpbacks drifting lazily at the surface, dropping down slowly and coming back up 50 meters away. The captain shut the motors off and passengers watched the whales as they spyhopped, popping up on different sides of the boat. Near the edge of the continental shelf, the boat was surrounded by over 20 humpback whales in all directions, breaching and spyhopping. The captain shut off the engines, and the two closest whales continued to swim around the boat in a spiraling fashion until they finally swam under the boat. Whale watching activities were interrupted three times as a black-footed albatross appeared and floated by the boat. Additional marine animals included a leatherback turtle, several ocean sunfish (Mola molas) and a northern fur seal hanging out in the jug-handle position where the head, both hind flippers and a fore flipper were waving in the air.

A northern fur seal showing "jug handle" behavior. © Izzy Szczepaniak

By the Southeast Farallon Islands, passengers were greeted by hundreds of thousands of breeding birds either sitting on their nests or foraging in the waters around the islands. The sea was calm enough to navigate around the entire island. Most of the bird species that breed on the islands were seen, including a perennial crowd pleaser: tufted puffins. Other birds sighted were: western grebe, sooty shearwater, brown pelican, double breasted cormorant, Brandt's cormorant, Pelagic cormorant, surf scoter, western gull, royal tern, common murre, pigeon guillemot, Cassin's auklet and rhinoceros auklet.

On the ride back to San Francisco passengers saw 2 more humpback whales and at least 20 harbor porpoises.

A black-footed albatross takes off. © Izzy Szczepaniak

Author

Nancy Heaton is Oceanic Society's former Local Programs Coordinator based in Ross, CA, USA.