gator

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sightings: 9/27/19

Sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

11am: 

On our first trip of the day we found two humpbacks feeding in 100 feet of water. These whales were just outside the shipping lane. 

The first whale we spotted we identified as Gator, one of the frequently sighted whales in this area. We got a good look at Gator’s fluke and dorsal fin. 

We then approached the other whale, which was feeding and moving offshore. There were birds hovering over the whale and a few porpoises in the area, with lots of anchovies on the fish finder. 

We spent about 45 minutes with these animals before heading back underneath the Golden Gate. 

2pm: 

On our next trip we went along the south side of the Golden Gate Strait before heading towards the shipping lane. We had not gone far outside the strait when we spotted a spout. The humpback whale was feeding, and we saw some fluke dives from the animal as well as one roll feed. 

Multiple ships passed by us over the course of the trip, so we gave the whale lots of space to maneuver near them. 

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We were in 70 feet of water with tons of anchovies. The whale slowly moved west over the course of the trip. 

Sightings: 9/15/19

Sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

9am:

On our first trip of the day we were surprised with good visibility and calm sea conditions. We found two humpback whales feeding near the middle of the shipping lane.

The closer whale was moving around quite a bit, seemingly looking for food. Eventually it found a good spot and we started to see birds hovering over the whale, grabbing at anchovies.

The whale was in only 50 feet of water. We stayed with the animal for about 40 minutes.

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We also saw California sea lions resting on the shipping lane buoy.

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12pm:

On our second trip we found two more humpback whales much closer to shore, although still near the middle of the shipping lane.

These whales moved around quite a bit, but we did see hovering birds, indicating some feeding activity. We identified Gator from the flukes of one whale. Gator has been seen in this area many times.

3pm:

On our final trip we found two humpback whales in almost the same location. We were seeing coordinated dives from these two individuals, who seemed to be moving in large circles.

We saw a fluke dive from one of the animals. I did not recognize the fluke, but it was definitely a different whale than the previous trip.

We also had some roll feeding from one of the whales on this trip. Birds hovering over the whales indicated feeding activity as well.

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Sightings: 8/31/19

Sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

9am:

On our first trip of the day we traveled down to Pacifica and found two humpback whales lunge feeding in 28 feet of water.

One of the whales surfaced for a brief moment before disappearing. The dorsal fin may have been that of Gator, a familiar visitor to our waters.

The other whale stuck around and fed in the area. We saw lunge feeding, anchovies boiling at the surface, and lots of bird activity.

At one point the whale approached us within 100 yards.

We spent about 30 minutes with the whale before returning to port.

12pm:

On our next trip, we found one whale feeding in 85 feet of water. The humpback was originally found between Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Over the course of the trip, the whale moved in between Alcatraz and Angel Island, then towards the Bay Bridge.

We saw lunge feeding and roll feeding from this animal. There were birds hovering over the spot where the whale was feeding.

There was tons of bait in the area, as well as tons of boats approaching the whales. There were inboard/outboard motor boats, sailboats, and large ships in the area.

We spent over an hour with this animal as it moved around the bay.

3pm:

On our final trip of the day we headed back out to the Golden Gate Strait, where we found two whales in about 117 feet of water. One of the whales was moving in and out of the strait, while the other stayed farther out.

We saw some fluke dives from the closer individual, who we identified in our catalog as #62. This whale had new scars on its fluke since we last saw it in 2018.

The whale was feeding, with birds and anchovies present in the same area. There were a few sailboats nearby.

We spent about an hour with this animal.

Sightings: 8/4/19

Sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours Vessel Kitty Kat

9am:

On our first trip of the day we headed through the fog to the south. Near Mussel Rock we stopped to see a mola mola (ocean sunfish).

While watching the sunfish, we spotted a whale ahead of us. It was moving west and doing frequent fluke dives. As we approached, the water deepened from 40 feet to 56 feet.

As we moved west two more humpback whales appeared. One of the two was Gator, a familiar whale here in the Bay Area.

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It’s possible that the first whale we saw and the other adult were a cow-calf pair.

We spent about 30 minutes with the animals.

12pm:

On our next trip we returned to the same spot, where we had five humpback whales feeding near some fishermen.

We saw lunge feeding and body rolls from these animals, although few fluke dives.

One of the whales we spotted was Gator, who had been feeding in the area earlier in the day. A different whale came within 25 yards of the boat. The whales were in about 50 feet of water, but were relatively close to the shoreline.

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There were also lots of murres with their chicks in the area.

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3pm:

On our final trip of the day we headed back to Mussel Rock and again found five humpbacks feeding in the area.

The whales were within a few hundred yards of the beach, and we could see people walking along the shore.

They lunge fed multiple times all around the boat. There was a huge shoal of anchovy between us and the beach that the whales herded and fed on throughout the trip.

They came within 100 yards of the boat several times. For most of the trip we just idled in the area and watched as the whales swam around us.

We also spotted some fluke dives from these animals.

The way home was very wet, but it was worth it!

Sightings Report: June 25, 2019

Sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

11am:

On our first trip of the day we found whales several miles off of Muir Beach.

We initially found just one animal, then spotted more whales heading towards us. They were herding the bait and feeding cooperatively.

We had five humpbacks in this area and saw behaviors including tail slapping and lunge feeding.

There were fishing vessels and birds around the whales who were also taking advantage of the anchovies. We were in about 70 feet of water.

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One of the whales we saw on this trip was Gator, a frequent visitor to San Francisco.

2pm:

On our next trip we found humpback whales very close to the spot where we had left them. Two humpbacks were feeding in 47 feet of water.

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We saw fluke dives from these animals. I was able to spot Gator again using the whale’s distinct dorsal fin.

Birds hovered over the whales, indicating that they were feeding. Despite big swell and some wind, we stayed with the whales for about half an hour.

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Sightings Report: May 4, 2019

Sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

12pm:

The bay was packed with boats as we headed around Angel Island, through Raccoon Strait, and towards the Golden Gate Bridge. The Sailing Grand Prix race was happening in the central bay.

When we didn’t find a whale in the bay, we headed offshore. The weather was beautiful. It wasn’t long before we started seeing spouts. We were just to the north of the shipping lane.

We had three humpback whales on this trip, including Gator, a whale we see regularly.

Two of the humpbacks stayed close together, while the other fed a little ways away from them.

We were able to smell the humpback breath from over half a mile away.

3pm:

On this trip we headed straight offshore to the place where we last saw the whales. The tide had changed and the wind picked up a bit, so it took a little longer on this trip than on the first one.

The whales were in the same spot. We saw the same three humpbacks close to us, with more spouts off on the horizon.

This time we were able to identify both Gator and Akula.

The whales were definitely feeding. We saw one lunge feed and lots of quick dives. They showed their flukes on about 2/3 of their deeper dives.

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We also spotted a group of sooty shearwaters in this area.

Sightings Report: August 2, 2018

Sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am:

We had foggy weather for our first trip of the day. We were able to locate two humpback whales, who we identified as Gator and Topspot.

We saw a few fluke dives from these animals.

There was lots of bird activity around the area, as well as some active fishing vessels.

11am:

We found another humpback in about the same area on our next trip. We saw a few fluke dives from a distance.

This whale was different from the two we saw on our earlier trip. It was also exhibiting feeding behaviors.

Sightings Report: June 2, 2018

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Happy Days

9am: 

We set out on our first trip of the day with reports of whales in the straits. We headed first to Diablo Cove to check out the harbor seals and scan the strait for spouts. 

While floating in Diablo Cove we saw spouts by Mile Rock. As we got closer we saw more and more spouts, eventually counting 9-10 whales. 

The humpbacks were all relatively close to each other, with some travelling and diving in pairs. 

One whale across the channel tail slapped a few times as a large container ship passed between that whale and the rest of the group. 

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Over the course of the trip the whales moved in towards Baker Beach. We floated with the tide, and a few times they came within 100 yards of us.

We saw one breach towards the Golden Gate Bridge. 

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We also spotted lots of California sea lions in the strait.

On this trip we picked up an entire trash bag floating in the water, along with a big piece of styrofoam, a Starbucks cup, and a Clorox bottle. 

12pm: 

The wind had picked up as we headed out for our next trip. Luckily, the whales had moved in all the way to Cavallo Point. 

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There were 4-5 humpbacks in this group. They were all individuals who we had seen outside the bridge on the earlier trip. We sighted Gator, Topspot, and Curly, as well as some unnamed whales.

We were able to float in neutral for a lot of the trip and saw a few fluke dives within 50 yards of us. 

A strong incoming tide pushed us and the whales farther into the central bay as the trip went on. 2-3 big container ships passed by us, as well as a wide variety of smaller boats. 

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There were lots of harbor seals in the area as well. 

All whale sightings were reported to vessel traffic. 

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.