Our Farallon Islands whale watching trip on August 13 trip kicked off just around the corner from our Crissy field pickup with a unique view of some of San Francisco’s most beloved marine mammals, the Pier 39 California sea lions. Many locals and tourists alike have gotten the chance to see these puppy-like pinnipeds from the pier itself, but being able to watch the sea lions while being surrounded by others entering and exiting the platforms was an exceptional experience. After returning home, I found that one of the sea lions we observed during our trip had something wrapped around his neck. I quickly reported the entangled sea lion to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA and they were able to use the photos from our trip to help in locating the animal.
We left the sea lions and continued onward on our path circumnavigating Alcatraz Island. On our way towards the island we caught a glimpse of our first cetaceans, two harbor porpoises traveling just west of the island. Unfortunately we weren’t able to snap a picture of the swift marine mammals, but many of the passengers were able to catch a quick glimpse before they swam out of view. As we approached Alcatraz, we quickly noticed that the cliffs of Alcatraz Island were crowded with a variety of seabird species. Pelagic and Brandt’s Cormorants hung to the cliff faces while Pigeon Guillemots and Common Murres swam around in the waters near the island. Passengers marveled at the juxtaposition of both human and natural history elements coinciding on the tiny island.
After circling the island, we headed under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean. Our first stop outside of the bay was to a small outcropping on the north shore just east of Point Bonita. Here we were able to observe a second set of pinnipeds, Pacific harbor seals. At least 30 of these undeniably adorable sea mammals perched themselves on the large rocks protruding from the water surface to bask in the sunshine and rest. One seal had a large scar on his lower abdomen, possibly from a shark bite, but the wound was well healed and the seal appeared to be in good condition.
After observing the seals for some time, we got a call that humpback whales were spotted near our location and we left the seals in the hopes of finding some mega mammals. After a few moments of not seeing any evidence of whales, we noticed a flock of Common Murres and Sooty Shearwaters numbering what appeared to be in the thousands. The seabirds began to circle and right below them a spout erupted from the water. We found whales!
The conditions were a bit bumpy, but the passengers wooed with excitement as we approached the whales. We spotted between 4 to 5 humpbacks in the wide mouth of the bay. One whale just west of our boat lunged a single time and took in a giant mouthful of water and assumedly some of the tiny anchovies that whales in the region have been feasting on this summer.
While we explored the area, checking out the whales that were around, we noticed many pairs of male Common Murres accompanied by their chicks. The passengers marveled at the loveable example of paternal care. The small chicks chirped on the surface as their fathers swam around under the sea seeking a meal to keep their babies well fed. At just 3 to 4 weeks of age these chicks jump off the rocky cliffs that were once their homes and spend the next couple of months roaming the seas with their father until they’re grown and independent. The stark contrast between the size and coloration of the babies and fathers made for easy identification of these pairs.
Although the weather kept us from making the full day trip to the Farallones, we were able to spend a few hours watching the humpbacks bounce around the mouth of the bay before making the trip back. On our way, we spotted 4 more harbor porpoises, making our porpoise total for the trip 7, including at least one calf. For two of the whales we were able to get photos of the undersides of their flukes, which when updated to the website Happywhale, can be used to identify the individual animals we encountered and record data on sightings. One whale was immediately matched as ID # CRC-15339, a whale that has been recorded in Monterey and off Humboldt, but never before in the San Francisco Bay Area! You can see the whale's sighting history here.
To get a chance to see these awesome animals join the Oceanic Society and get out on a boat!
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.