california sea lion

Sightings: 10/13/19

Sightings from Oceanic Society vessel Salty Lady

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.

20191013_072425.jpg

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.

034A0378.jpg

As we left Diablo Cove, we spotted a spout in the Strait. It was humpback whale 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.

As we continued out west, we spotted a group of Dunlins headed east.

034A0450.jpg

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.

034A1112.jpg

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.

034A1293.jpg

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.

034A1339.JPG

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.

20191014_120023.jpg

Sightings Report: June 4, 2018

Sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

11am:

After a stretch of bad weather, we headed out on Tuesday with sunshine and good visibility. We went west through the shipping lane, spotting a lot of bird activity as well as some California sea lions resting on the buoys.

We made our way out to the pilot boat, who said they’d seen whales the previous day. We slowly made our way east when a passenger saw a spout. (Shoutout to Michael from Philadelphia!)

At first when we approached the whale we were seeing spouts, but no fluke dives.

After a few minutes we saw a couple of lunge feeds. At one point the whale rolled onto its side and showed us one lobe of the fluke. We'll see if that’s enough to identify it!

2pm:

On our second trip we headed back out to the same area of the shipping lane. It took us a while to find a spout, but eventually we found a humpback whale.

This whale was fluking, so right away we were able to tell that it was a different animal from the previous trip. The dorsal fin was also distinct.

After we had been with the whale for 15 minutes, it began to tail slap. We floated in neutral as the whale slapped for several minutes, at one point coming to about 150 yards away.

Sightings Report: May 3, 2019

Sighting from vessel Mirabel, approximately 11am.

Mirabel is a lovely 32’ Grand Banks captained by Dr. Ellen Hines. On Friday she invited a few students out with her to see what we could find in the bay.

The Kitty Kat was on a whale watching tour and alerted us to a gray whale just east of Angel Island. That’s where we headed first.

The gray whale was not fluking. It stayed in almost the same spot when it surfaced. There was a strong incoming tide and a bit of wind.

The Kitty Kat stayed a safe distance away from the whales and approached slowly.

After photographing the gray whale, we headed through Raccoon Strait, where we saw a sea lion preying on a fish.

We headed towards the Golden Gate Bridge, turning around near Cavallo Point. There was a lot of bird activity in the area as well as activity on the fish finder. We saw several porpoises in this area as well.

We headed back between Alcatraz and Angel Island towards the Berkeley Marina for fuel and then the Richmond Marina to end our day.

Sightings Report: September 8, 2018

Sighting from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

We headed out towards the Farallon Islands with heavy wind in the forecast. We started up the north coast to Bolinas, then turned west towards the islands.

The swell and wind were heavy, but we persevered and eventually made it to the Farallons.

The islands were covered in California sea lions, Stellar’s sea lions, and northern fur seals.

Near the islands we spotted several black footed albatrosses and a few tufted puffins.

DSC_8665.JPG

There were some murres near the islands, but they were finished with nesting for the year.

DSC_8686.JPG

Near the islands we spotted two feeding humpback whales. The whales threw flukes and surfaced in synchrony with each other.

Sightings Report: May 12, 2018

Sighting from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

This short trip started at 6pm. It was windy, cold, and foggy, but we were optimistic as we headed out past the Golden Gate Bridge. On our way out we spotted some sea lions and harbor porpoise. 

DSC_7351.JPG

We saw some large splashes way past the bridge. It was a tail slapping humpback in the middle of the strait.

DSC_7303.JPG

We spotted another humpback near the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, with two more spouts in the distance near Diablo Cove and the other way off near Point Bonita. 

The whales were diving so we saw a few flukes. For the most part, all of the whales stayed in roughly the same spot for the whole trip. 

Some harbor seals also popped up while we were watching whales in the strait. A large container ship passed by us.

Sightings Report: May 2, 2018

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am: 

We started off the day in the same place we found the whales the previous morning. Sure enough, we found humpback whales in the middle of the Golden Gate Strait near Point Bonita. 

Initially I saw one spout, but soon I was seeing four spouts. A few more minutes passed and suddenly I was counting nine spouts from Point Bonita back in to the Golden Gate Bridge. 

A powerful tide pulled us in, and we experienced large swell. We saw very few flukes from the whales. Two of them were the same pair we had been seeing all week - Gator and Topspot. They continued to surface near us. 

DSC_5729.JPG

One whale surfaced within 100 yards of us. This whale breached once, then fluked a couple of times. It was spouting once every 1-2 minutes. 

DSC_5762.JPG

We saw lots of harbor seals and California sea lions in the strait as well. One of them had caught a fish and had large groups of birds overhead. 

DSC_5781.JPG

On our way in, we spotted a spout by Yerba Buena Island. We moved slowly towards our dock. Suddenly a gray whale surfaced about 100 yards away from our boat, then disappeared. The whale continued travelling west. 

11am: 

The wind picked up for the next trip. We found 3 of the same whales we had been watching earlier near Diablo Cove. 

A few huge container ships passed by. We kept a conservative distance so that the whales and the ships both had plenty of room to maneuver around each other. 

There were huge numbers of birds, harbor seals, California sea lions, and harbor porpoises. 

DSC_5812.JPG

We followed the whales at a distance as they slowly moved west. 

Sightings Report: April 18, 2018

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

As we headed out into San Francisco Bay, we heard reports of a whale by the Golden Gate Bridge. We moved towards the Golden Gate Strait, looking for any signs of a spout. On our way we spotted a California sea lion. 

A sea lion flips on its back.

A sea lion flips on its back.

I spotted the whale 500 yards behind us, close to St. Francis Yacht Club. We slowly approached, noting the heart shaped blow.

A gray whale's back.

A gray whale's back.

We saw another spout closer to Fort Mason, suggesting there were two gray whales in the area. 

We floated in neutral near the yacht club. We saw the whale spouting close to the shore in only 27 feet of water. There were big plumes of mud coming out from behind the whales, indicating feeding.

At one point a whale came within 50 yards, circling the boat. 

We watched the two whales for a while as the wind began to pick up. By the end of the tour the spouts were being blown away very quickly. 

Sightings Report: March 29, 2018

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am: 

On our first trip of the day we saw lots of harbor seals near the Golden Gate Bridge. It was high tide, so they were likely out looking for food. We also spotted some California sea lions and harbor porpoises. 

As we headed outside the bridge, we spotted a few gray whales near Mile Rock. They were easily identifiable by their heart-shaped spout. 

The back of a gray whale.

The back of a gray whale.

The water was flat and calm. Large groups of birds rested on the surface. 

We saw  a few fluke dives from the whale, who seemed to be staying in one spot. In between sightings we stopped to pick up a plastic water bottle.

11am: 

The weather for our 11am trip was still flat and sunny. We again saw harbor seals by the bridge, as well as some California sea lions. 

We spotted a spout by Mile Rock and slowly headed towards it. As we got closer to the end of the strait, the spout was seen again back behind us. After 8-10 minutes, we saw it surface again near Mile Rock. 

It was a gray whale, and we saw a few fluke dives. At one point the whale surfaced 50 yards from our starboard side. 

A gray whale with Point Bonita in the background.

A gray whale with Point Bonita in the background.

Near the end of the trip, a tug, barge, and two container ships passed by us. 

DSC_2196.JPG

2pm: 

On our third trip of the day we headed out to where we last saw the whales. When there was no sign of them, we headed across the strait to Point Bonita, then went north along the protected coastline. Some California sea lions rested on the shipping lane buoy. 

Near Rodeo beach we picked up a large piece of styrofoam floating in a large group of surf scoters. 

We turned around and headed back towards the bridge, spotting harbor seals and harbor porpoises but no whales. 

Sightings Report: March 28, 2018

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Happy Days

8am: 

We started off strong on my first 2.5 hour tour of the year with harbor seal, harbor porpoise and California sea lion sightings in the bay and the strait.

DSC_1778.JPG

We headed out past Point Bonita and started North up the coast, where the waters were relatively calm. We didn't get far before I spotted a spout to the west. 

Harbor seal

Harbor seal

It turned out there were two humpbacks in this area. They were somewhat elusive, making shallow dives in only 37 feet of water. One of them had a lot of marks on its skin, making me wonder if perhaps it was the calf with the skin condition sighted several times last season. 

We saw lots of shallow dives where the whale did not show its fluke.

We saw lots of shallow dives where the whale did not show its fluke.

As we turned back and headed towards the bridge, we spotted a gray whale near Point Bonita. This one spouted a few times and disappeared. 

Just after we saw the spout, a huge container ship passed by us. 

DSC_1783.JPG

11am: 

On our way out we again saw harbor seals, California sea lions, and harbor porpoises. Near Diablo Cove we found a Gray whale. 

A gray whale spouts from afar. 

A gray whale spouts from afar. 

While floating and waiting for the whale to spout, we picked up a pillow and a lifejacket from the water. We also got a good look at several harbor seals and sea lions. 

Harbor seal. San Francisco Bay is home to several reddish harbor seals, likely because of traces of iron or selenium in the water. 

Harbor seal. San Francisco Bay is home to several reddish harbor seals, likely because of traces of iron or selenium in the water. 

We headed out to Point Bonita and north, hugging the coast. A large group of California sea lions were diving and splashing near the shipping lane buoy. 

We also spotted a large group of surf scoters and pelagic cormorants. 

When we didn't see a whale, we turned around and headed back to Diablo Cove, this time getting up close to the rocks to take a look at the resting harbor seals. 

We saw a few more spouts outside the Golden Gate Bridge and one near Baker Beach. 

A Canada goose at Diablo Cove.

A Canada goose at Diablo Cove.

2pm: 

On our way out of the bay we picked up a large leather purse. The water color had changed significantly and the wind had picked up.

DSC_1946.JPG

There was a huge group of cormorants outside the Golden Gate Bridge, with harbor porpoises surfacing nearby.

The swell in the Golden Gate Strait was larger and the period was short. We saw the spout in the middle of the strait, in line with Mile Rock. 

We saw the whale surface a few times before a large container ship started to come in. We let them know about the presence of the whale. We then moved far to the other side of the channel to be well out of the way of the ship and avoid putting extra pressure on the whale.

DSC_2018.JPG

As we waited for one ship to pass, another started heading out. 

We spotted lots of harbor seals and a few California sea lions in the water. After watching the whale for a while, we headed to Diablo Cove and got a look at the harbor seals resting on the rocks at low tide. 

Sightings Report: March 10, 2018

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours Vessel Kitty Kat

We pushed off from the dock on a calm but very foggy morning. We could barely see the Golden Gate Bridge as we passed underneath, but still managed to spot some harbor porpoises, harbor seals and California sea lions. 

We headed north up the coast, then turned west to make our way toward the Farallon Islands. We had been heading west for a few minutes when a passenger spotted a spout about a quarter of a mile away. 

We began to slowly approach the whales when one surfaced about 100 yards away from our port bow. It was a humpback!

We put the boat in neutral and floated with the whale, who swam underneath us and came up on our other side. When it surfaced again, I realized there were actually two whales swimming together - potentially a mother and calf. 3-4 more humpbacks spouted off in the distance. 

We had found the whales in 91 feet of water, with a huge 75 foot wall of anchovies underneath us. Their short dives and the way they stayed in the same general location let us know they were probably feeding. 

After a few minutes, we left these whales to continue on to the islands. With very little wind or swell to hinder us we made great time and approached the eerie, fog-shrouded islands. They were invisible to us until we were within a half mile of them because of the visibility. 

The islands were coated with common murre breeding pairs who created a screaming cacophony easily heard from the boat. More murres, gulls, and cormorants swarmed in the waters around the islands. 

Some California and Steller sea lions rested on the rocks or bobbed in the water, craning their necks to look around. 

We made our way from Fisherman's Bay around the lee side of the island, noting more birds and sea lions near Mirounga Bay and Saddle Rock. 

We slowly turned back towards Fisherman's Bay and floated there for a while, observing the chaotic bird activity through the mist. After a few minutes, we slowly started to head back towards shore. 

Right as we began to move, we spotted a spout. It was two gray whales about 150 yards from our starboard side. As the second whale fluked, I noticed that it was missing its fluke, instead showing a large pink scar. I was unable to get a picture, but reported the sighting of this whale to the biologists on the islands, since I knew that several scientists were on the lookout for a whale of this description. 

A gray whale appearing out of the mist. 

A gray whale appearing out of the mist. 

We headed back towards land with very limited visibility and a few short showers. We could see rain following behind us on the radar. At one point a sanderling circled our boat for several minutes. 

Sanderling, usually a shorebird.

Sanderling, usually a shorebird.

As we approached the Golden Gate Strait, we again spotted large groups of harbor porpoises. The fog had cleared up and we finally got a good view of the Golden Gate Bridge and clouds rolling over the Marin headlands. 

Clouds over Marin.

Clouds over Marin.

This sighting will be recorded and reported to Golden Gate Cetacean Research. It was the first large grouping of humpbacks we have seen this year. 

The Golden Gate Bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge.