Sightings Report: March 10, 2019

Sighting from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

Warning: This post contains a dead whale in the final picture sequence.

We embarked on our gray whale watching trip at 9am with sunshine and a chilly wind. We had only been underway for a few minutes when the first whale was spotted. It was a gray whale near the southeast tip of Angel Island. We saw a couple of spouts before it headed east towards Oakland.


We continued on towards Raccoon Strait, where there had been reports of whales earlier. I spotted a spout close to shore near Tiburon Harbor. We approached slowly and found a gray whale hanging out close to shore.

This whale had lots of sea lice, especially around its blowhole. We were able to view both sides of the whale before heading back east to locate different animals.

We spotted several harbor seals and California sea lions.


Eventually we spotted another spout on the eastern side of Tiburon. We saw this whale come up a couple of times. There was another spout closer to the Richmond Bridge as well.

We made our way back around the north side of Angel Island when we spotted a whale floating in the water. As we approached, we realized it was not moving. It was a gray whale carcass.

The carcass was relatively fresh, although gaseous buildup had begun. We documented and reported the event and the Army Corps of Engineers towed the whale to Angel Island for necropsy by the team at Cal Academy of Sciences.

The team determined that the cause of death for this year old 23 foot female was malnutrition. The next day another year old female was found near the Bay Bridge. The cause of death for that whale was likely a ship strike.

Read more about these two whales here.

Special Sighting: Año Nuevo State Park (II)

Sighting from January 17, 2019 at Año Nuevo State Park in Pescadero, CA.

Each year in the winter, elephant seals come to Año Nuevo to give birth and mate. Last year I went to Año Nuevo in February, and most of the females had already given birth. There were lots of weaner pups and little interaction between mothers and pups. Read about that sighting here.

This year I went on a stormy January day. It takes around one month for a pup to be weaned, so by coming in January I saw a lot more newborn pups than I’d seen on my last trip.


When we arrived at the dunes with our docent led tour, we first spotted some large males resting in the grass. There were mostly younger males, identifiable because of their relatively short nose.

Once we crested the dune we could see the main breeding area. It was extremely noisy, with mothers and pups vocalizing constantly.

One mother near us seemed to be protecting her baby from any approaching birds. She would hiss and throw sand every time they came close to her pup.

We witnessed a fight between two large males. They struck each other five or six times before the smaller one retreated back towards the water. If you look closely you can see their teeth and the bloody breastplates.

Later we saw one more fight which was settled much more quickly.

We also witnessed a few mating events.

There were a few second and third year juveniles on the beach; our docent said they would leave before the main breeding event began.


Just three weeks can make a huge difference in the kind of behavior we see out in the field! If you want to check out the elephant seals for yourself, I highly recommend the docent led tours at Año Nuevo. You can also see elephant seals on the California coastline at San Simeon or Point Reyes.

Special Sighting: Estero Bluffs State Park

Sighting from January 17, 2019 at Estero Bluffs State Park in Cayucos, CA.

Warning: This post includes a photo of a recently stranded dolphin. The photo is not graphic, but the animal is deceased. The photo is the last one in the post.

Estero Bluffs State Park is a beautiful protected area. There are multiple access points from highway 1, making for a secluded adventure. The day we went was misty, right after a lot of rain. This created many small rivers flowing down to the cliffs and the sea. Morro Rock was just barely visible in the distance.


Wandering along the cliff’s edge, we spotted a multitude of sea and shorebird species, including black turnstones, western grebes, and a surf scoter.

We spotted a couple of egrets hunting in the grass.

Some species, like whimbrels, sandpipers, and the black turnstones, were looking for food in the intertidal zone or up on the bluffs.

Many were bathing in puddles, including a savannah sparrow.

It was high tide. We spotted dozens of harbor seals poking their heads out of the water.


As we made our way north, my friend Alicia pointed out a burrowing owl right on the edge of the cliff. It was staring straight at us. We gave it a wide berth so as not to disturb it.

The water farther north was a little less protected, so we saw larger surf. There were harbor seals and sea otters in the surf. One pair of sea otters appeared to be a mother and pup, feeding and playing in the kelp.

In this area we spotted a pair of black oystercatchers on the rocky beach.

We slowly turned and headed back south. The tide had gone out significantly and as we came back to our first spot we noticed that lots of the harbor seals were now resting on rocks instead of swimming.

We also spotted a pair of turkey vultures flying low overhead and eventually resting on the bluff edge.

With the ebb of the tide, we also noticed what appeared to be a common dolphin carcass. It was fresh with only a few small scratches on its body. I took the coordinates of the location and called the Morro Bay Marine Mammal Center. They responded to the call and recovered and necropsied the animal later that day.


Special Sighting: Morro Rock

Sightings from January 16 at Morro Rock and Morro Rock Beach in Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo County, CA.

I have a sister on the sailing team at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who always tells me stories of the sea otters she spots during their practices. During a visit to see her, I made my way out to Morro Rock to spot some otters for myself. Luckily for me, otters live in Morro Bay year round and are easy to spot from the shore.

As we walked along the path between the parking lot and Morro Rock, we spotted several otters in the channel. They floated on their backs, eating or cleaning themselves.

According to the Morro Bay National Estuary Program, at one point “sea otters were once hunted almost to extinction for their thick pelts….They were so scarce that they were thought to be extinct along the California Coast. However, one small group of otters survived along the coast of Big Sur; this group was first sighted in the 1930s. The otters that you see in Morro Bay today are descended from this population.”

Morro Rock is also an important nesting site for raptors. Read more about the amazing recovery of raptor populations in San Luis Obispo here. We spotted both osprey and peregrine falcons.

There were also a number of seabirds and shorebirds closer to the water.

On the other side of the rock, near Morro Rock Beach, we spotted a pelican in breeding plumage.

The wind and surf were high and we caught some surfers in action as well.


Sightings Report: December 6, 2018

Sighting from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

On this trip we headed out into the Gulf of the Farallones with beautiful weather. There was sun, very little wind, and gentle swells. We spotted porpoises, sea lions, and harbor seals on our way out into the shipping lane.

About 13 miles west of the bridge we found our first humpback. The animal kept a distance from us and appeared to be travelling. It had a low spout which made us think it might be a gray whale at first.


Off in the distance we spotted a huge group of birds and a couple spouts. We decided to leave the whale and approach the spot with more activity.

In this area we found two humpbacks. They were active and showed their flukes.

One of them stayed closer to us, once coming within 50 feet of the vessel.

We used to identify this whale as an unnamed individual in the North Pacific catalog. It had previously been seen in Monterey and Puerto Vallarta in 2016.

This whale rolled onto its side and showed us its pectoral fin.

Sightings Report: December 3, 2018

Sightings from the Golden Gate Bridge

I arrived at the bridge a few minutes after high tide, around 9:00 AM. It was a cold, clear morning, with the Farallon islands barely visible on the horizon.


I was able to spot seabirds and a few porpoises under the bridge.

I observed one foraging attempt.

I also saw one mother traveling with her calf.


Sightings Report: October 24, 2018

8 AM Sighting from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

On this trip we headed out past the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Golden Gate Strait. A crew member spotted a whale near Mile Rock. It was a single humpback.

The humpback was feeding in an area with a lot of tidal action. We saw many lunge feeds as the whale fed on anchovies. We floated in the vicinity of the whale for a while before the whale began using the tide to come towards us. We saw at least one lunge feed within 50 yards of our boat.

As the tide came in, the whale moved towards the Golden Gate Bridge. We did not see fluke dives from the animal, but we were able to identify it based on the scars and markings on its body.

1 PM Sighting from Golden Gate Bridge

We only had one trip on the boat on this day, so after the tour a few members of Golden Gate Cetacean Research met on the Golden Gate Bridge to see if we could spot the whale.

The humpback had used the tide to move far into the bay. We could see it breaching and spouting near Alcatraz. At one point a large cruise ship passed by the whale.

While we waited for the tide to change, we photographed harbor seals and porpoises underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

We spotted several mother-calf pairs among the harbor porpoises.

We also witnessed porpoises chasing fish and at least one mating attempt.

We lost sight of the whale for a while. Then I finally spotted it near Fort Point, only a few hundred yards from the bridge. We managed to get a few photos before the whale swam under the bridge and came out on the other side.

The whale breached in the Golden Gate Strait and continued to move out with the tide.

Sightings Report: October 21, 2018

Sighting from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

On this trip we headed out to the Farallon Islands. We had relatively good weather with very little wind, although the skies were grey.

We turned north out of the Golden Gate Strait and made our way to Bolinas, where we turned west towards the islands.

When we made the turn, we found a humpback whale. It breached and showed us its fluke.

We decided to continue past the whale to make the best of the good weather. On our way we picked up several balloons.


When we got to the islands we started in Fisherman’s Bay. There were lots of California and Stellar’s sea lions on the rocks.

We also spotted a couple of peregrine falcons on top of sugarloaf, and a couple of brown boobies farther down the rock.

We then moved towards Mirounga Bay. Diver Ron Elliot and Great White Adventures were both present, searching for Great White sharks. We didn’t hear any shark reports from them, but the cage diving boat reported that a gray whale had swum close to their cage.


There was another falcon on top of Saddle Rock.

When we turned around and made our way back towards the California coast, we spotted a couple of sunfish close to our boat. One was floating with it’s mouth out of the water.


The sunfish (also known as mola mola) ended up near our stern, where one of them started breaching! It breached three times in a row.

On our way back towards the shipping lane, we saw several more whales including several breaches. It brought our humpback whale count up to 9-10 animals.

Sightings Report: October 20, 2018

Sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

We had excellent weather as we headed out into the Gulf of the Farallones. We headed straight west for the Farallon Islands.

Just past the precautionary area we found a humpback near the Oceanic Society vessel, the Salty Lady.

There was also a seal carcass floating in the water. It had been there for a while and seemed to be headless. There were a few circular bites from cookie cutter sharks. The carcass was probably from an attack from a great white shark.


As we headed farther out, we found more and more humpbacks. About 20 miles out we found a group of 10 within sight of us. One of them came 15 yards from the boat.

We saw several lunge feeds while the animals were close to us, indicating that they were feeding. There was also a lot of bird activity above the animals.

When we reached the Farallon Islands, we spotted another spout. This one was less regular, and after several minutes of observation we were able to identify it as a gray whale. We saw one fluke dive.


Ron Elliot, the famous scuba diver, was diving at the Farallons to take footage of the sharks. The cage diving boat was out as well.


The islands were full of California and Stellar’s sea lions, northern fur seals, and northern elephant seals.

We spent a while at the islands to see if we could spot any sharks, but none surfaced. We did spot lots of sea nettles and moon jellies.

When turned around and headed back to land, we spotted lots of humpback whales. Between the islands and the shipping lane we saw at least 10-15 whales, including several breaches.

Sightings Report: October 17, 2018

Sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat


For our first trip we headed west of the precautionary area. We found at least ten whales just west of buoys 1 and 2.

There was a ton of bird activity all over the shipping lane. We saw some anchovies boiling at the surface, which let us know what the whales and the birds were feeding on.

We saw feeding behavior, including a few lunge feeds. We were able to identify several of the individuals in this sighting.

Many ships passed by us during this trip.

We spotted some California sea lions on the shipping lane buoys. We also had some harbor porpoise activity.


We returned to the same spot on our next trip. On our way out we spotted more sea lions. Some of them were porpoising.

A little bit farther west we found 5 humpbacks.

The whales kept a distance from us, but we were downwind and were able to smell their breath.

There were lots of birds in the area. We confirmed that at least three of the individuals we saw were the same ones we had seen on the previous trip.


On our final trip of the day we headed a little bit farther north than the previous trips. We found three whales, all far from each other.

One whale near a container ship was breaching repeatedly.


We did not see fluke dives from the other whales. They kept their distance from us. We did see lots of bird activity and some sea lions on the buoys.