blue whale

Special Sighting: Captain Dave's Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari

Sighting on June 18, 2018 from vessel Manute'a

As a naturalist, I'm always looking for ethical wildlife experiences when I travel. My first "special sighting" was in my hometown of Dana Point, California with Dana Wharf. Since then I've posted about seeing orcas in the San Juan Islands, spotting fur seals in Tasmania, and observing elephant seals and a beached blue whale along the California coastline.

Last weekend I found myself again in my beloved hometown, the place that inspired my love of the ocean. I decided to go whale watching. 

Captain Dave's Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari is a well known local business. Anybody who spends time down at the harbor knows about "Dolphin Dave." As a local, I was stoked to be heading out for the first time on their catamaran sailboat Manute'a. 

The crew was led by Captain Dan and naturalist Craig. We headed north out of the harbor, noting some California sea lions on a buoy.  We found our first group of dolphins near the Dana Point Headlands. 

The crew estimated there were about a hundred long-beaked common dolphins in the group. The dolphins exhibited feeding behaviors, surging through the water to chase the fish. Hungry birds including brown pelicans and gulls hovered and dove near the group. There were calves present in the group as well.

The dolphins led us north, bow riding and wake riding. When we reached the Laguna Beach city limit, we left the dolphins and turned west towards the edge of the continental shelf, which in southern California is only a few miles offshore. 

We had only gone a few miles when we found another group of two hundred dolphins. The crew identified them as short-beaked common dolphins. 

This group also had calves, but were exhibiting more social behaviors.

We saw lots of aerial exhibitions, exposed bellies, and calves porpoising with adults. 

We turned back south along the shelf, searching for a whale. We spotted lots of sooty shearwaters clumsily taking flight or resting on the surface of the water. 

After progressing south for a while, the crew spotted a spout half a mile to the southwest, followed by an enormous fluke. We approached the general area where the whale had taken its dive, then waited for it to resurface. About ten minutes later, it surfaced just over a hundred yards away from the boat. 

It was a blue whale. It spouted five times, slowly circling the vessel. 

On the fifth spout it did a fluke dive. We were perfectly positioned to capture the ventral view.

According to the company's Instagram account, this whale was identified as Kinko, a female who was seen for the first time in four years. 

There was also another group of long-beaked common dolphins in the area, but they did not approach our vessel. There was one other boat in the area. 

The captain and crew had a lot of interesting information to share. I'm a Dana Point native who works on a whale watching boat and I learned interesting new facts that I'd never heard before. The operation was professional and respectful of the wildlife. At the end, we even got to taste Mrs. Captain Dave's famous brownies. 

You can find out more about Captain Dave at I highly reccomend following their beautiful Instagram page @captdaveswhalewatching

Sightings Report: June 10, 2018

Sighting from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

There was wind in the forecast as we headed out towards the Farallons. The weather seemed pretty good outside the Golden Gate Strait, so we decided to pass a few humpback whale spouts in favor of beating the wind to the islands. We turned north to Bolinas before turning west towards the islands. 

The weather held until about 10 miles from the islands, when the wind started to pick up. Not long after that we spotted our first blue whale.

The whale surfaced in front of us and then seemed to move north. There were large red splotches on the surface of the water, indicating huge masses of krill.


The whale was feeding in 180 feet of water. 

We continued on, only to be stopped by a set of three blue whales a couple of miles west. 


These three blues included a pair who surfaced and spouted together, along with another individual not far away. One of them came within 75 yards of our boat. 

We also spotted a humpback near the boat at this point. 

We decided to continue on with six more miles to the islands. We were spotting spouts to the south, but we headed for the far side of the Farallons. There were lots of sooty shearwaters, common murres, and northern fulmars flying around. 

We made it to the Farallons and started at Mirounga Bay. We spotted some northern fur seals, sea lions, and elephant seals on the islands and in the water near the rocks.

We also spotted a couple of tufted puffins in the air, a rhinocerous auklet floating in the water, and lots of murres, cormorants, gulls, and pigeon guillemots. 

We started our journey back towards land with the wind and the swell at our stern. After going a few miles, we started seeing spouts again. 


We kept the bow pointed east and did not approach any of the whales, planning to parallel them without doubling back. At least ten blue whales spouted around us, several within 150 yards of us. At least ten more humpbacks were in the area as well.

At one point three humpbacks surfaced near our starboard bow, then came closer and closer before finally coming within 5 yards of the boat. 

The humpbacks dove underneath us and reappeared at our stern with several more blue whales. 


We also spotted a black footed albatross in this area. 

We continued on towards land, seeing spouts 300-500 yards away for the next 5-7 miles. 

We spotted several California sea lions on the shipping lane buoys on the way in, and saw a single spout in the Golden Gate Strait before we ducked back under the Golden Gate Bridge and headed back to Pier 39. 

Sightings Report: November 18, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Happy Days

We started off our trip towards the Farallon Islands with beautiful weather. As we passed north of the shipping lane, we found three humpback whales feeding, and two more spouts in the distance. The group of three was split up into one pair and one solo humpback. The pair surfaced in synchrony the entire time we were there. 

Humpbacks with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

Humpbacks with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

We continued on towards the islands, slowing at one point to look at hundreds of bright orange Pacific sea nettles drifting in the waters beneath us. 

As we approached the islands, I noticed something bright red near Sugarloaf. I started taking pictures and captured a few splashes. Birds started to swarm to the area. 

As we approached, I was able to confirm that we were approaching a large slick of blood, likely caused by a Great White shark attacking a sea lion. The frenzied birds dove into the water, some surfacing with pieces of meat. Sea lions were barking loudly and swimming in groups close to the rocks in Fisherman's Bay. We likely had missed the attack by just a few minutes. 

If you look closely where the splash is, you'll notice a fin!

If you look closely where the splash is, you'll notice a fin!

We continued around the islands towards Saddle rock, noting a large number of common murres perched on the cliffs. Water visibility was excellent, and we could see the bottom in many spots. 

In Mirounga Bay near the Jordan we spotted a couple of Elephant seals and some Northern Fur seals on the rocks. There was a large group of sea lions in the water. 

Since we had such excellent weather, we decided to head out towards the continental shelf. We had been heading west for just a few minutes when we spotted 2 humpbacks breaching over and over again. 

We approached slowly and were treated to one breach about 300 yards from our boat. 

When they were done breaching, the whales started slapping their pectoral fins, sometimes rolling over as they did so. We watched three humpbacks diving and slapping for several minutes. 

We noticed some huge spouts in the distance and thought that we might have some blue whales. We headed towards them and sure enough, we spotted 3 blues. Two of them were a pair surfacing together. There was one more large spout in the distance. 

We were far from home, so we had to turn around and start our journey back towards the pier. On our way back in we noticed a few king salmon leap out of the water, as well as some moon jellies and harbor porpoises. 

Sightings Report: October 14, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am Farallon Islands trip: 

We headed west towards the Farallon Islands in moderate swell and wind, both from the northwest. We found one humpback on our way out feeding under a huge group of gulls, common murres, and sooty shearwaters. 

Huge group of birds hovering over a bait ball.

Huge group of birds hovering over a bait ball.

We saw a few lunge feeds from the whale, but few fluke dives. It was feeding in 136 feet of water.

Humpback whale.

Humpback whale.

After a few minutes, we pressed on towards the islands. The captain spotted the blue-footed booby resting on Sugarloaf, along with many juvenile and adult brown pelicans. There were lots of California sea lions in the water and on the rocks, along with a few fur seals. 

The water was full of moon jellies as we progressed towards Mirounga Bay. The shark diving boat was present, but reported no sharks so far that day. 

We decided to use the good weather to continue on towards the continental shelf, passing the west side of the islands. Boats fishing for rockfish started to appear between the swells. 

I spotted a spout 500 yards away, but then discovered something closer to us: a pod of Risso's dolphins moving towards the Farallons. They were slapping their tails, jumping out of the water, and moving quickly southeast. 

Ahead of us were several spouts. Two humpbacks swam side by side a few hundred yards from us, and a few other groups of 2-3 humpbacks were visible.

As we continued we saw two blue whales and more humpbacks spouting ahead. 

The light-gray back of a blue whale.

The light-gray back of a blue whale.

When we finally had to turn around and head back towards the islands, we had another sighting of the Risso's dolphins before heading east. We watched the humpbacks from our stern until they were out of sight. 


On our 3:00 trip, we found a single humpback whale northwest of the shipping lane. It was showing its fluke and did a few lunge feeds.

A few birds were present hovering over the whale. It was feeding in 76 feet of water. 

Humpback fluke.

Humpback fluke.

We also spotted harbor porpoises on our way out. 

All sightings west of the Farallons were reported to Vessel Traffic. 

If you were on one of these trips and have photos, send them in to! I'd love to add them to this post for others to enjoy (with credit to you). Thank you!


Sightings Report: September 10, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am: Farallon Islands Trip

We started off the day with good sea conditions and a lot of fog. We saw harbor porpoises and harbor seals on our way out. The forecast said the fog was to extend to 10 miles offshore; however, it didn't start to clear up until we reached the islands. 

Saddle Rock appearing out of the mist. 

Saddle Rock appearing out of the mist. 

When we were close to the Farallons, we spotted our first tufted puffin in the water near the boat. We moved over to Fisherman's Bay and spotted a juvenile yellow-billed loon in the water. 

As we made our way around the islands, we spotted lots of California and Steller sea lions on the shore and a few in the water. Some elephant seals were sighted inside Garbage Gulch. 

There were lots of drifting creatures in the water near the islands, including pelagic tunicates and moon, box, fried egg, and comb jellies. 

We headed off towards the continental shelf, hoping to find whales. We went west of the Farallons and started heading northwest. We found one whale just a few miles from the island but had reports of more whales a few miles ahead from the Oceanic Society on the Salty Lady, so we pushed onward. 

40 miles offshore we found a dozen humpbacks and 2-3 blue whales feeding in over 1000 feet of water. The ocean became a deep turquoise; our equipment said it was 63 degrees. In the photos below, the whales with dark bodies are humpbacks and the ones with light gray bodies are blue whales.

We saw flukes and spouts from the humpbacks and one fluke from a blue whale. One of the humpbacks was entangled in a buoy near the Salty Lady, who reported the whale to the Coast Guard. 

There were 2-3 black-footed albatrosses present at the shelf as well as many gulls. 

Black footed albatross.

Black footed albatross.

We left the area with a long journey home ahead of us. As we passed west of the Farallons, we spotted a lot of thrashing. As we got closer we saw it was a couple of sea lions tossing around an unidentified fish as hungry birds gathered overhead. 

We headed back down the middle of the shipping lane, where we spotted 3 mola mola, also known as ocean sunfish. We picked up a balloon nearby. 

The water as we came in was unusually glassy. The fog had cleared and we had a calm, quick ride in with no whale sightings. 


On our next trip we decided to go back up the shipping lane and see if we had missed any whales on our way back in. We saw a lot of bird activity, harbor porpoises, and a harbor seal as we made our way through San Francisco Bay and then the Golden Gate Strait.

Humpback in front of pilot boat.

Humpback in front of pilot boat.

We ended up finding 4 humpbacks at shipping lane buoys 1/2. We saw a few fluke dives and spouts. Two different whales did tail slaps, with one slapping repeatedly. 

There was some shipping traffic coming in. We spotted California sea lions on the shipping lane buoys and red necked phalaropes in the water. 

All sightings near the shipping lane were reported to Vessel Traffic.

If you were on one of these trips and have photos, send them in to! I'd love to add them to this post for others to enjoy (with credit to you). Thank you!


Special Sighting: Bolinas Beached Whale

Content warning: dead and decaying whale

Sighting from August 31, 2017

In May, a 79 foot blue whale washed up on Agate Beach in Bolinas. The Marine Mammal Center performed the necropsy and concluded that the whale had suffered trauma to her skull, a fractured spine, and broken ribs, suggesting that she was hit by a container ship. 

Even though parts of the body have decayed or been collected by researchers, some of the whale is still on Agate Beach. There is a large amount of skin, including the pleated grooves on the throat. There are a few bones, most notably a single vertebra. We also found baleen. 

There are around 2800 blue whales who feed near our continental shelf in the summer. They are endangered, and as such it is illegal to take any part of their body. It is also illegal to harass or disturb a beached whale, whether it is alive or not. It is always important to be respectful of the creatures. 

Ship strikes are a huge problem for whales near San Francisco. The San Francisco shipping lane is one of the top two deadliest spots on the west coast for whales. 

We journeyed on to Point Reyes for the afternoon, where we spotted some intertidal creatures, birds, and tule elk. 

A huge thank you to friends Goni and Caroline for contributing photos and being ready for adventure!

Days off 🙌

A post shared by Allison Payne (@aaaa_llison) on

Sightings Report: July 29, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

Farallon Islands Trip, 8am: 

The morning was cold and foggy, but right away we started spotting sea lions and harbor porpoises in the bay. As we made our way past the Golden Gate Bridge, our captain spotted four spouts by Point Bonita. We proceeded slowly and watched humpbacks spread out over the strait do a few fluke dives. We wanted to push out to the islands while the weather was good, so we moved on from those whales sooner than we normally would have. 

Our strategy was to move north up the Marin coastline and then head out to the islands from there. We had nice weather while heading north, and saw lots of porpoises and some bird activity, mainly common murres with their chicks. Through areas where there were known whale populations, we held a speed of 10 knots.

Common murre father with chick. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Common murre father with chick. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Once we turned west the water got choppier as we headed into the swell. Once we reached the pilot station, the water deepened and the ride was a little nicer, and we sped up to 15 knots. The last seven miles to get to the islands are always the most challenging as the water goes from deep back to shallow again, but when we were only 3 miles away I spotted two spouts 500 yards south of us.

We slowed way down and gently turned south. I assumed the whales we had found were humpbacks, but once they were 250 yards away I caught a glimpse of the unmistakable body of a blue whale. 

We drifted with the two blue whales and the Oceanic Society's Salty Lady. The two blues first approached Salty Lady, then moved away from both of the boats.

Just as we started to turn away towards the islands, the two blues surfaced within 50 yards of our boat on our starboard bow and slowly dove under us before resurfacing on our port side. One of the whales seemed to be a lot bigger than the other, arousing suspicion that we had a mother and calf with us. The photos below, taken by Jennifer Hendershott, confirmed our guess. 

We waited until they were 100 yards away before slowly starting to move towards the misty islands. We made it there in about fifteen minutes, and started floating by Sugarloaf on the eastern side of the island when another humpback surfaced in Fisherman's Bay within 100 yards of us. It surfaced several times on our port stern before swimming under us and reappearing on our starboard bow and moving to the other side of Sugarloaf. 

Common murre with krill. 

Common murre with krill. 

The islands were coated with common murres, and Sugarloaf was covered in cormorants and gulls as well. I noticed several tufted puffins resting on the rocks below the murres. 

Tufted puffin. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott. 

Tufted puffin. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott. 

On shore, California and steller sea lions wrestled and barked. Some of them were perched on cliffs over 20 feet above the water, and some swam in small groups close to shore. The noise of the birds and the sea lions carried far out over the water.

Sea lions getting comfy. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Sea lions getting comfy. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

We slowly made our way around the lee side of the island. We had several birders on board, so together we were able to spot several more tufted puffins, a large group of red throated phallaropes, and a few Cassin's auklets. Near Garbage Gulch we spotted a resting elephant seal. 

After going past Saddle Rock, we turned around and headed back for one last look at Sugarloaf. Our photographer, Jen, and some of the passengers caught a glimpse of blue-footed and brown boobies resting on the rock. 

Blue footed booby. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott. 

Blue footed booby. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott. 

Pigeon guillemot taking off. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Pigeon guillemot taking off. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Red throated phallarope losing its breeding plumage. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Red throated phallarope losing its breeding plumage. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

We had an easy ride back to port with the swell and the wind at our back. We did about 17 knots until we got close to the area where we know there can be large concentrations of humpbacks. We slowed to 13 knots, and then down to 10 when we reached the channel. We spotted spouts by Mile Rock and at other points in the strait, but we slowly moved past them to get back to port. 

We reported the humpbacks in the strait to the Coast Guard and to NOAA on the Whale Alert app. 

Full sightings list. 

Full sightings list. 

A huge thank you to SFWT photographer Jennifer Hendershott, who captured most of these photos. You can find more photos on her Facebook page or on the SFWT Facebook page. 

***If you were on this trip and have photos, send them in to! I'd love to add them to this post for others to enjoy (with credit to you). Thank you!***