farallon islands

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.

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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.

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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.

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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: 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.

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

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

Sightings Report: June 3, 2018

Sighting from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

There was wind in the forecast as we set out towards the Farallon Islands on Saturday morning. We made our way out through the Golden Gate Strait, sighting a couple of spouts by Mile Rock. We decided to continue past the whales in hopes of beating the wind to the islands. 

We turned north and headed up the coast until we hit Bolinas. We then turned west and continued for twenty miles in sunshine and relatively calm water. 

7 miles from the islands the sun disappeared behind a thick layer of fog and the wind picked up. At one point a humpback popped up 50 yards from our boat. We saw it spout once more before it disappeared.

It was slow going through rough water for those last few miles, but we made it. We headed for Mirounga Bay so that we could have the swell at our back as we explored the islands. Murres, guillemots, cormorants and gulls all circled the islands and rested on the rocks. 

We also spotted elephant seals, Stellar's sea lions and California sea lions on the islands and in the water close to shore. 

Weanling elephant seal taking a look at us.

Weanling elephant seal taking a look at us.

We stayed on the lee side of the island, then slowly started the push home. A few minutes into our return journey we saw a large spout. We stopped and floated while a fin whale approached us to 30 yards, swimming around our port side to the stern before disappearing. 

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As we continued our journey back to port, the weather slowly improved. We noticed some sea lions resting on the shipping lane buoys and some harbor porpoise in the channel. 

As we continued in, we found one humpback underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. We saw a couple of fluke dives from this animal. 

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There were also a lot of harbor seals near the bridge. It was still very windy when we made it back to port. 

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Sightings Report: May 20, 2018

8am sighting from San Francisco Whale Tours trip on vessel Outer Limits

Heavy wind was in the forecast as we set out for the Farallon Islands on Sunday morning. We made our way out through the bay and up the north side of the strait, pausing near Diablo Cove to look at the harbor seals resting on the rocks. We also spotted some pigeon guillemots and a black oystercatcher on the rocks. 

Just beyond Diablo Cove we saw a spout. It was a humpback whale. 

The humpback was throwing flukes, occasionally coming within 100 yards of us. 

The whale seemed to be making its way in towards the bridge. We decided to leave the whale and continue on towards the islands. 

We turned north out of the strait, making our way up the coast. The section between Point Bonita and Bolinas was experiencing strong tidal action in addition to the heavy wind, so the water was rough. 

When we reached Bolinas we turned west and continued out to the islands. There were 6-8 foot wind waves. About 3 miles from the islands, we saw another spout, but we decided to continue on to the islands. There were lots of sooty shearwaters flying in this area. 

We made it to the Farallons and ducked into Fisherman's Bay. There were a couple of tufted puffins in this area.

There was a huge amount of common murres both on the rocks and in the water. Stellar's sea lions rested on the rocks. 

We made our way around the island to Mirounga Bay, were we spotted a spout. It was a smaller spout. After a few spouts we saw the body and were able to identify it as a gray whale. 

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The gray whale traveled north and we followed for a while. When we reached the western tip of the island, the water got very rough and we decided to go back on the lee side of the island.

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On our way back around we spotted some more puffins and a couple of rhinocerous auklets. 

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We left the islands and started home, hoping to find some more whales on the way back. We had barely gone a mile when we spotted a huge spout. We had two blue whales in front of us. 

The blues moved northwest and we were pushed southeast by the wind. Slowly we drifted apart. 

We continued back towards the Golden Gate. Just after we passed shipping lane buoys 7 & 8 we found a distinct tide line where the water went from blue to gray-green and got significantly rougher. 

We were 3 miles from the demarcation line when some passengers saw a breaching whale. We approached and found the whale slapping its pectoral fins on the water. 

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It then started breaching over and over again, followed by more pectoral fin slapping and some tail slapping. 

A large container ship passed by as we watched this activity. Two more humpback whales joined in, with one of them breaching. 

By the time we left the humpbacks we were almost at Mile Rock. The humpbacks were being pushed in with the tide just like we were. It pushed us all the way back to port. 

3pm sighting from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Happy Days

The tide continued to come in as we headed out on our last trip of the day. We were heading through some rougher bay water when I saw a spout near the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. 

It turned out we had three humpbacks near the bridge. Gator and Topspot were near the north tower, with a third individual near the south tower. They moved together over the course of the trip. 

We saw several lunge feeds from the whales, as well as many fluke dives. Occasionally the whales would float on their side, showing one of the lobes of the fluke. There were a lot of smaller recreational boats out whale watching.

The whales moved in over the course of the trip. We were in the central bay by the time we left the humpbacks. 

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On our way back in, I spotted a smaller spout near Alcatraz. I saw it once more a few minutes later. I suspect that it was a gray whale. 

We also saw lots of harbor porpoise surfing the current in the middle of the bay on this trip, in addition to harbor seals and sea lions. 

Sightings Report: May 13, 2018

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am Farallons Trip: 

We had just started on our Farallon Islands trip when we found a humpback whale just outside the Golden Gate Bridge. We saw a fluke dive and decided to continue past it to increase our chances of making it to the islands. 

There was a southern wind to 10 knots forecasted, but we had pretty much no wind as we headed west. We were able to make good time and covered twenty miles quickly. At one point the captain reported a leatherback turtle, but we were unable to locate it. We did see several large Pacific Sea Nettles. 

A red necked phalarope near the Farallon Islands. 

A red necked phalarope near the Farallon Islands. 

Eight miles from the islands we started to see spouts. There was a group of five humpbacks swimming very close together, surfacing in synchrony. 

Humpback whales. 

Humpback whales. 

There were a couple of huge spouts from blue whales. At one point, a fin whale surfaced 75 yards from us. There was also a large group of common murres in this area, along with other bird species. 

Blue whale. 

Blue whale. 

One of the humpbacks came 50 yards from our boat. It seemed to be on the small side. Most of these whales were not doing fluke dives. 

We also saw a black-footed albatross gliding ahead of us and land on the water. 

We also saw a sea lion floating in the water in this area. We picked up a balloon as well. 

We continued on towards the islands. Observers at the lighthouse informed us that there were orcas near the continental shelf, so we went past the islands and continued five miles past them in search of the orcas. We saw no spouts of any kind, but there were a lot of birds in the area. 

A couple more albatrosses were flying near us. We were in 2500 feet of water, with lots of krill. I was surprised that there were absolutely no spouts. 

We slowly made our way back to the islands, coming around to Mirounga Bay and working our way east. The islands were full of sea lions, murres, cormorants and gulls. 

We saw several tufted puffins, both in the air and floating on the water. 

Eventually we started to make our way back towards the Golden Gate. On our way back we had several whale sightings from a distance. 

3pm: 

We headed out for our final trip of the day. Passengers spotted a spout underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. It took a while to spout again, but when it did we were able to confirm that it was a gray whale. 

There was a huge amount of ship traffic, both inbound and outbound. 

We observed some harbor seals and harbor porpoises in this spot as well. 

Eventually we decided to continue out and find humpbacks. We found three out past Mile Rock, including some familiar flukes. Two of them were staying pretty close together. 

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The whales were near a big group of cormorants. 

Near the end of our observation period, a humpback surfaced 75 yards off our port bow and swam to our starboard stern. 

Sightings Report: April 29, 2018

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

High winds were in the forecast as we started to make our way out to the Farallon Islands. The Golden Gate Strait was especially rough due to a powerful incoming tide. 

We had just passed the Golden Gate Bridge when we saw spouts. It was a humpback in the middle of the strait. 

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We were not seeing any flukes from this whale. Another whale spouted out near Point Bonita. We also spotted a few harbor porpoises in the strait. 

We decided to continue on and attempt the islands despite the wind. We turned north towards Bolinas and slowly made our way up the coast, noting a large amount of bird activity and a rainbow off our bow. 

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Eventually we turned west, observing several sea lions resting on a channel marker. The weather started to improve. 

Eight miles from the islands we began to see big spouts. A group of 5 whales surfaced about 200 yards from our boat, spouting in synchrony. Their tall dorsal fin and huge size identified them as fin whales. 

The fins swam all around the area, sticking together for the most part. The swell was big, so we could see them surfacing on top of large waves. 

There were spouts all around us from fin whales and humpbacks, most at least 300-400 yards away. I counted at least 10 animals within 500 yards of us. We slowly continued our trek towards the islands. 

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When we first reached the islands, they were misty and gray. There were tons of common murres, gulls, pigeon guillemots, and cormorants in the air and water. 

We first headed to Mirounga Bay, observing the sea lions on the rocks and some fur seals resting on Saddle Rock. As we floated, we observed more spouts farther out towards the continental shelf. 

We saw a total of 3 tufted puffins, all flying in the air close to the islands. 

We slowly made our way around the island. As we were heading towards Fisherman's Bay, we saw a spout at our stern. We quickly put the boat in neutral and waited. Then a gray whale popped up in a huge group of gulls who had been floating on the surface.

We saw the gray within 50 yards of the boat for a few minutes before it started heading east. Then we continued on to Fisherman's Bay. 

Above Fisherman's Bay we could see thousands of nesting murres on the islands. Three Canada Geese flew by. 

Eventually we turned towards land and started back home. Five miles from the islands we saw more spouts. Initially I saw some more fin whales. Then there was a huge spout and the unmistakable light gray body of a blue whale. More whales spouted in the distance. 

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We went another five miles and found a humpback, who breached twice. We continued past it. 

We saw nothing else until we were almost back to the Golden Gate Strait. There, near Mile Rock, we found two humpbacks. They were potentially a mother and calf.

The smaller whale breached over and over again, slowly moving west. 

The larger whale surfaced a lot less often. Near the end, the smaller one also started slapping its tail and pectoral fins on the water. 

It was a fantastic finale for our trip!  

Sightings Report: March 17, 2018

Sighting from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat. 

The week preceding this trip was stormy and wet, so we were pleased to find on Saturday that there were only light winds and showers in the forecast. As we headed north out of the Golden Gate Strait, we even got a view of a full rainbow. 

We had just made the turn west when we spotted a humpback whale spouting 500 yards away. We slowly approached. 

The whale was traveling north, which made it difficult to follow. After a few minutes of watching the humpback recede into the distance, we decided to continue on to the islands. We went through a few wet patches, including a mini hailstorm. It was clear at the islands, though we could see rain and enormous clouds in all directions. 

Watching the rain from a distance. 

Watching the rain from a distance. 

We first pulled into Fisherman's Bay, where we saw Steller sea lions resting on the rocks and bobbing in the water.

There were lots of common murres in the water, as well as a large group of pigeon guillemots.

As we motored towards Saddle Rock, we also spotted a black footed kittiwake, surf scoters, a few species of cormorants, eared grebes, and a few auklets. 

As we went by the scientists were bringing a group of volunteers up on to the island via crane. 

We continued around the island to check out Mirounga Bay. We spotted a plastic water bottle and performed a man overboard drill to recover it.

Water bottle floating on a glassy sea. We pick up plastic whenever the sea conditions allow it.

Water bottle floating on a glassy sea. We pick up plastic whenever the sea conditions allow it.

As we finished maneuvering to get the plastic, a passenger spotted a spout 300 yards south of us. 

It was a gray whale with especially dark skin, making it seem like a humpback at first glance. We got a few close looks from our bow as the gray swam by. 

On our way back towards the mainland, we stopped for several more spouts. These were all gray whales and all seemed to be on the move; they surfaced infrequently and would reappear far from their last location. 

A gray whale's back.

A gray whale's back.

We also spotted harbor porpoises, harbor seals, and California sea lions. 

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.

Sightings Report: January 28th, 2018

Sighting from SFWT trip on vessel Outer Limits

This trip saw some of the best weather we had seen in a few months. Light northerly winds meant that the day was sunny and there were few whitecaps. 

We were searching for whales the whole trip out to the Farallon Islands. We had great visibility, spotting several groups of harbor porpoises, a few harbor seals, and California sea lions resting on the shipping lane buoys. 

We had just made it close to the islands when I saw a spout to the south. I called it out to the captain and we made our way towards it slowly. 

As we observed the whale's stout, heart-shaped blow, we spotted another spout to the west. It turned out we had three gray whales surrounding us. 

One of the grays surfaced alone while the other two dove and surfaced in synchrony. One of the whales in the pair was floating on its side and on its back, showing us a pectoral fin and half of the fluke. This social behavior is not commonly seen in our area, where the whales are often focused on traveling. 

Whales floating on their sides, bellies facing each other. You can see one lobe of a fluke and some pectoral fins sticking out of the water. A few gray whales display mating behavior on their migration south, especially if they're later in the season.

Whales floating on their sides, bellies facing each other. You can see one lobe of a fluke and some pectoral fins sticking out of the water. A few gray whales display mating behavior on their migration south, especially if they're later in the season.

We watched the whales interact with each other while floating in neutral. We saw several fluke dives, and a few times the whales came within 100 yards of the boat. 

Gray whale fluke.

Gray whale fluke.

After spending almost an hour with the whales, we headed towards the islands. We saw a large group of eared grebes in Mirounga Bay, along with surf scoters, pelagic and double crested cormorants, common murres and western gulls.

Eared grebes.

Eared grebes.

As we moved around the northern side of the island, a Peregrine falcon soared overhead. 

Peregrine.

Peregrine.

We turned back around the island towards Fisherman's Bay, getting a close look at the seabirds on Sugarloaf. The California and Stellar's sea lions on shore barked and slid into the water. 

We also noticed moon jellies and pacific sea nettles in the water. 

Murre arch.

Murre arch.

Our trip back was smooth and sunny, with more porpoise and seal sightings near the Golden Gate Bridge.