A Special Whale Watching Trip to the Gulf of the Farallones – 13/10/19

This trip was for a marine biology case study class I’m taking for my Masters program at the Estuary and Ocean Science Center at SF State. We arrived in Sausalito around sunrise to board the Salty Lady and head out into the Gulf of the Farallones. We spotted some Harbor Porpoises and bird activity in the bay, then stopped by Diablo Cove to check out the harbor seals. We spotted black oystercatchers on the rocks near Point Diablo, as well as a song sparrow and spotted sandpiper. There were also murres, pelicans, terns, cormorants, grebes, and gulls in the area.
We also spotted some more harbor porpoises near the mouth of the strait.

As we left Diablo Cove, we spotted a spout in the Strait. It was Humpback Whale CRC-16391 “Gator”, #33 in our catalog and a frequent visitor to the area.

We saw a couple of fluke dives from Gator, who was averaging 4 or 5 minutes on each dive. After spending some time with Gator, we continued on into the Gulf of the Farallones.

There was still a lot of bird activity, including parasitic jaegers and large rafts of surf scoters. When we got out to the shipping lane, we saw some sea lions on one of the buoys. There was a huge Steller sea lion on one side of the buoy and a bunch of California sea lions on the other side. Seeing the two species side by side, the size differences were clearly contrasted. Eventually we came to more humpbacks. There were two animals feeding in 225 feet of water, with scattered bait visible on the fish finder. We saw fluke dives and a couple of lunge feeds from these animals.

One of these whales had a distinct propeller scar on its side.

We continued southwest towards the continental shelf, taking advantage of the beautiful weather.

On our way out we continued to spot humpbacks, usually feeding by themselves or in groups of two.

There were abandoned crab pots and ships in the area as well. We were seeing lots of shearwaters in this area, including sooty, pink-footed, flesh-footed, and Buller’s shearwaters. When we reached the continental shelf, there was a boat fishing for black cod. There were 5 or 6 black footed albatrosses sitting and flying near the fishing boat, hoping to take advantage of the black cod. There wasn’t much wind, so some of the albatrosses had to take running starts to get aloft. Near the albatrosses we also spotted a northern fulmar and rhinoceros auklets. After leaving the albatrosses, we came across another lunge feeding humpback whale.

We began our trek towards the Farallon Islands along the shelf edge in about 3,000 feet of water. We spotted a mola mola on the way. As we headed north, we started to see some splashing from a distance. The captain identified the splashes as Dall’s Porpoises.

They sped through the water, perhaps attempting to bowride our boat.

I saw a few animals with calves.

After the porpoises left us, we headed towards the islands. We started off on the western end on the lee side of the island to take a look at the northern fur seal colony. There were also California sea lions and northern elephant seals in the group as well. I spotted a marbled murrelet in this area as well. We continued around Saddle Rock towards the east side of the Southeast Farallon Island, spotted more sea lions, harbor seals, and lots of bird activity. We stopped in Fisherman’s Bay to look at the California and Steller sea lions playing in the area, and saw lots of pelicans and cormorants nesting on Sugarloaf. We then headed around the windward side of the islands to complete our circumnavigation.

After circling the islands, we headed east towards home. After a few miles, the captain announced that the “motherlode” was up ahead.

We approached a group of 20-30 feeding humpback whales and hundreds of feeding sea lions and birds When we were about 100 yards away, he turned off the engine and we observed the feeding frenzy. The whales and sea lions started to move towards us until there were at least ten whales within feet of the boat.

The whales continued to circle our boat and feed all around us, while rafts of sea lions leapt out of the water. We could hear the whales making different vocalizations, from moaning and groaning sounds, to trumpeting, to the sound of the whales’ blows.

As the feeding frenzy passed by us, we started our engines again and continued east.

However, just a few hundred yards in front of us was another group of 20-30 humpbacks feeding with a huge raft of sea lions and large group of birds.

We could see rainbows in the spouts as we approached.

We again stopped a couple hundred yards away, this time with the engine on.

Again, the whales approached us within a few feet of our boat and we got whale snot sprayed in our faces.

There were tons of sea nettles in the area. We spotted moon jellies as well. We could also see the tiny shimmering scales of the anchovies glittering in the water. After spending some time with this group, we headed back home. The total trip was around 8.5 hours. It was certainly one of the best trips I’ve ever had out to the Gulf of the Farallones, with our final species list coming to 41 different species of birds, mammals, fish, and invertebrates.

-Allison

This post was adapted from a blog, read the original here

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