harbor porpoise

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: 9/22/19

Sightings from Tamalpais Charters vessel Tamalpais

On this trip with Tamalpais Charters we headed west underneath the Golden Gate Bridge, spotting harbor porpoises and some California sea lions. There was a lot of bird activity in the Golden Gate Strait. We spotted elegant terns, common murres, brown pelicans, western, California,  and Heerman’s gulls. 

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We headed out west towards the north bar. On our way we stopped to look at a young mola mola (ocean sunfish). There were tons of porpoises in this area as well. 

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As we headed farther west, we spotted a couple of spouts on the horizon. We ended up with a whale on either side of us and were able to spot one fluke dive. 

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We approached the other of the two whales, whose dorsal fin I recognized as a whale named Akula. 

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Akula appeared to be resting. She swam in large circles, surfacing every few minutes. At one point she approached the boat within 50 yards. 

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After spending about 40 minutes with these whales we started our journey back to Tiburon, spotting a couple of parasitic jaegers and several types of cormorants along the way. 

Sightings Report: April 26, 2019

Sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am:

On this trip we expected wind all day. We headed towards the east side of Angel Island, where we found a gray whale.

We floated for a while while the gray whale continued to surface in the same area. It looked like an adult.

Eventually the whale appeared to move towards Tiburon.

We also saw harbor porpoises in this area.

As we approached Pier 39, we saw a raft of sea lions swimming away from the Pier.

11am:

We found the same gray whale on this trip that we’d seen on the 8am. The whale was still hanging out east of Angel Island.

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We saw the whale surface a few times as the passenger ferries passed by us.

2pm:

On our final trip of the day, we were just leaving the dock when I saw a spout behind us close to Fisherman’s Wharf. We followed the gray whale as it headed towards the sailing practice being held by the Sailing Grand Prix.

The whale was spouting just once at a time and coming up every five minutes. It was windy, so the spouts were blown down quickly.

There was a lot of traffic, including the Sailing GP practice, container ships, passenger ferries, and day sailors.

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We continued around Alcatraz towards Angel Island, looking for the whale we’d seen earlier. We were unable to locate it before we headed back to the dock.

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.

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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.

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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.

Special Sighting: Skye Cruises

Sighting from Skye Cruises vessel Radiant Queen

On a grey and misty August morning, my family and I boarded the Radiant Queen, a fishing vessel used for wildlife tours by the guides at Skye Cruises. Skye Cruises are located in Uig on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. It’s a remote place, evidenced by the fact that there were just a few other groups on board the boat with us.

We took off at a leisurely pace, hugging the coast and enjoying the glassy calm waters. We passed the sheer cliffs and local ruins.

Our guides, Tom and Duncan, had lots of information about the local history and environment. They were passionate about educating us about the negative effects of local fish farms. Two new salmon farms were approved off of the Isle of Skye in spring of 2018. Locals worry that the farms will spread disease and increase chemical “medicines” in wild fish stocks. Read more about this issue here.

As we headed around the corner, we spotted our first white tailed eagle soaring above the cliffs.

We continued along the coastline before turning towards a small grouping of islands. On one set of rocks dozens of harbor seals.

We learned from our guides that although they are common at home, the harbor seals are actually rarer in Scotland than the grey seals. They promised we would see the grey seals later.

As we headed farther out towards another small island, we saw lots of bird activity on the water. There were razorbills, guillemots, terns, and northern gannets all around the area.

The captain also spotted some harbor porpoises in the area.

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We noticed a little more splashing on the horizon and I saw some dolphins start to leap out of the water. They were common dolphins, most likely in the area for feeding. We saw some leaps out of the water and some mothers travelling with calves.

Several northern gannets flew close to the boat.

By this time we were close to a small island where Princess Diana liked to go to escape the pressures of royal life. The island’s other claim to fame it’s a nesting spot for puffins in the summer. Unfortunately, we were just one day too late to spot any. We did get a good sighting of an Arctic skua resting on a rock.

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We also saw two more golden eagles. One was a juvenile and one was an adult.

Juvenile eagle.

Juvenile eagle.

We spotted a lot of jellies in the water of two species: moon jellies and red lion jellies, who really lived up to their name. Some of the red lion jellies were the size of serving platters.

On our way back we stopped by another rock which was the haulout of a few grey seals.

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After this we turned around and made our way back to port, enjoying the crew’s stories and the tea and snacks on board!

I sincerely appreciated the beautiful Radiant Queen, her knowledgeable and kind crew, and their passion for conservation. Check them out at Skye Cruises if you’re looking for unique trips in Scotland!

Sightings Report: May 15, 2018

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am: 

The weather was very calm and clear. From the strait, we could see all the way to the Farallon Islands. 

Harbor porpoises were active all over the Golden Gate Strait. We also spotted some sea lions and harbor seals. 

We found two humpback whales southwest of Mile Rock with a huge group of cormorants.

The whales were diving in 100 feet of water, 33 of which was anchovies. 

We saw one lunge feed from these whales. They seemed to slowly be heading west. 

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11am: 

On our next trip we found the whales slightly father west than we'd left them. They were close to the shipping lane. There were two inbound ships and one outbound. 

The whales seemed to continue to move west on this trip. 

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We also spotted sea lions, seals, and porpoises. 

Sightings Report: May 14, 2018

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Happy Days

8am: 

We found two bottlenose dolphins just past the Golden Gate Bridge. One was slightly larger than the other. They were bow riding and spinning underneath us. 

We continued out through the straight and past the demarcation line. Just past the line we found two humpbacks. 

The humpbacks stayed about 200 yards away and were slowly moving in. 

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The weather was cold and foggy, but the waters were calm. 

11am: 

The weather was the same as we headed out on our second trip of the day. Outside the bridge we saw several harbor porpoises going in all directions. We saw some California sea lions as well. 

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We continued on to Point Bonita, where we saw two spouts. 

We followed along the tide line for a bit, but were unable to relocate the spouts. 

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Suddenly I saw a breach to the south. We headed that way and saw a humpback slapping the water with its pectoral fin, followed by a fluke dive.

The whale disappeared for another fifteen minutes, then reappeared 1000 yards offshore. We were able to get one last look before heading in. 

Sightings Report: April 12, 2018

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

11am:

This trip had beautiful warm weather. We quickly spotted a spout southeast of Angel Island and another spout further towards the Golden Gate Bridge. We identified them as gray whales. 

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We moved to the west side of Angel Island, where we watched one of the grays spout without fluking. At one point the gray came within 25 yards of the boat and swam in a circle from our starboard bow to the port stern. 

We also had a good sighting of harbor porpoises. There was a group of 5-6 individuals swimming slowly near Angel Island. 

We also spotted a variety of seabirds.

Pigeon Guillemot.

Pigeon Guillemot.

2pm:

By the time we headed out on our next trip the wind had picked up significantly. We went to the Golden Gate Bridge, where it was very rough. We turned around and let the wind and swell push us back towards Angel Island. 

We went slowly through Raccoon Straits, hoping to relocate the whales from the last trip. We went all the way around the island and had turned north when I saw a spout off our stern. 

Spout with Fort Mason in the background.

Spout with Fort Mason in the background.

We approached and found two gray whales near Alcatraz moving slowly towards Angel Island. There were no flukes and the wind blew spouts away quickly, but we got good views of their bodies.