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Farallon Islands Whale Watch Sightings: August 13, 2016

By Chris Biertuempfel

Our Farallon Islands whale watching trip on Saturday, August 13 departed from San Francisco under medium fog with light winds and calm seas. These conditions allowed us to make good time to the Farallon Islands and on the way we spotted a humpback whale traveling alone. After observing this individual surfacing and spouting for around 15 minutes, it arched its broad back and dove under.

The back and dorsal fin of a humpback whale. © Chris Biertuempfel

Continuing west, we arrived at Southeast Farallon Island around 10:15 am. Now that we’re nearing the end of the seabird breeding season, the population of birds on and around the islands has decreased but the diversity of species is greater. This is due to a higher presence of migratory birds that are in the area from early August through late October. In addition to these migrants, a few familiar faces remain at the Farallones, including the Tufted Puffin.

A Tufted Puffin. © Chris Biertuempfel

Fewer birds bring focus to the hundreds of sea lions currently residing along the rocky shoreline. Stellar and California sea lions are found in distinct colonies on the southeast island and there is a large colony of northern fur seals farther west on the separate, but nearby island known as West End. As we circumnavigated the islands, we witnessed hundreds of these fur seals hauled out on the rocks in their usual spot.

Fur seals hauled out on West End in the Farallon Islands. © Chris Biertuempfel

After thoroughly exploring the islands we took a trip out to the continental shelf where the depth of the ocean floor goes from approximately 300 to 3,000 feet in a rapid drop-off. Here we are accustomed to seeing feeding whales and large ocean-going birds such as albatross. This day we found both. A large humpback whale was lunge feeding at the surface giving great views to all on board. Additionally, a group of 6 Black-footed Albatross were in the area, flying, swimming and exhibiting other behavior that resembles walking on water.

A lunge-feeding humpback whale. © Chris Biertuempfel

A Black-footed Albatross takes flight. © Chris Biertuempfel

Other interesting sightings on the day included an ocean sunfish and Pink-footed Shearwaters flying alongside the boat.

In total we saw:

  • 12 humpback whales
  • 500 California sea lions
  • 300 northern fur seals
  • 20 Stellar sea lions
  • 15 elephant seals
  • 30 harbor seals
  • 7 harbor porpoise
  • 1 ocean sunfish
  • 12 fried egg jellyfish
  • Black-footed Albatross
  • Surf Scoter
  • Brandt’s Cormorant
  • Northern Fulmar
  • Pink-footed Shearwater
  • Black Oystercatcher
  • Elegant Tern
  • Common Murre
  • Tufted Puffin
  • Cassin’s Auklet
  • Red-necked Phalarope
  • and Brown Pelican

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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