harbor seal

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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Golden Gate: 7/23/19

Sightings from the Golden Gate Bridge

I headed to the Golden Gate Bridge at about 4pm. High tide was scheduled for 5:20 pm.

For the first 30 minutes that I walked the bridge, I only saw pelicans and other seabirds.

As I walked toward the center span, I spotted a bright white spot on the water. It was a mola mola (ocean sunfish). These are rare inside San Francisco Bay, so I was surprised to see one coming in with the tide underneath the bridge!

As the tide came up farther, I spotted a harbor seal near the center span.

Eventually I started seeing a few porpoises as well. They were moving quickly under the bridge, usually in groups of 2-3 individuals. The water is cloudy with plankton at this time of year, so it is difficult to track the porpoises once they dive under.

I saw several large ships pass underneath the bridge. I also spotted the coast guard helicopter.

Sightings Report: May 1, 2019

Sighting from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am:

On this trip we found a gray whale near Richardson Bay. It surfaced roughly every seven minutes.

Over the course of the trip the whale slowly moved towards Tiburon. At a few points it came close to the shoreline and was diving in very shallow water.

As we headed back to the dock, we spotted one dive sequence from a humpback whale, including the fluke. The whale was in the central bay, but we didn’t see it again as we left the area. Soon after, a large oil tanker passed through the area.

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11am:

While we were at the dock, researchers at Golden Gate Cetacean Research were looking at a humpback whale off of Cavallo Point. When headed out on our next trip we went straight to the whale they were observing.

It was a humpback whale feeding on anchovies.

We saw several fluke dives from this animal. A few times it came within 100 yards of our boat.

Over the course of the trip, the whale slowly moved towards the Golden Gate Bridge.

This was consistent with the outgoing tide, which was likely causing the fish to move west.

We saw lots of harbor seals and California sea lions on this trip as well.

Several of the sea lions were hunting fish underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

2pm:

On our last trip of the day we went out into the Golden Gate Strait in search of the humpback. We relocated the animal in the middle of the strait.

At first we waited west of the animal to see if it was heading out. When it stayed in one spot for a while, we slowly approached.

The whale appeared to be feeding - we had huge bait balls showing on the fish finder. It was coming up at irregular intervals. A few times it lifted its tail high for a rapid deep dive.

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Sightings Report: April 6, 2019

Sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

3pm:

On this trip we headed towards the Golden Gate Bridge first, where we spotted harbor porpoises and harbor seals. From there we moved towards Sausalito, where we found a gray whale.

The gray whale was spouting regularly and showing it’s back, but we did not see any fluke dives.

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At one point the whale came within 50 yards of our boat.

6pm:

On this trip we headed back to the whale near Sausalito. The same gray whale was still near the harbor, spouting every ten minutes.

We also saw harbor porpoises and harbor seals.

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Sightings Report: March 31, 2019

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat.

9am:

On our first trip of the day, we initially headed to the Golden Gate Bridge. Eventually we received information that a whale had been spotted in Richardson Bay. We approached and found a gray whale near a paddle boarder and a kayaker.

We sat in neutral and the gray whale circled around us, coming within 50 yards of the boat. There was algae typically found on the sea floor floating on the surface of the water, which may have indicated the whale had been stirring up the mud at the bottom looking for food.

We saw one fluke dive from this animal.

We stayed with this whale until it moved towards Tiburon, then headed to Fort Mason, where we found another gray whale.

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On this trip, my sister Helen was sailing in a regatta. We passed her when she was in first place! Go Helen! Near the regatta was a harbor seal mother and pup and some interesting birds, including common loons and pigeon guillemots.

12pm:

On our next trip, we headed out past the bridge and towards Sausalito, where we had left a gray whale on our previous trip. Near the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge we saw a Steller’s sea lion - a relatively rare sight in San Francisco Bay.

We searched for the whale in Richardson Bay and covered most of the bay looking for spouts, but we weren’t able to find any whales on this trip.

3pm:

Since we hadn’t located whales on our previous trip, for the final trip of the day we decided to head out into the Pacific Ocean to search for our whales. After a few minutes of searching just outside the Golden Gate Strait, the captain spotted a spout. It was the first humpback of the season!

The humpback was keeping its distance from us, but appeared to be feeding. There were lots of birds gathered around the whale. The animal moved around a lot, overall heading north. It did not show us any flukes.

The whale did not pass the demarcation line to enter the Golden Gate Strait, but it came close. A few large ships passed by us while we observed the whale.

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Sightings Report: March 26, 2019

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am:

On our first trip of the day we headed out with a few reports of gray whales in San Francisco Bay. It was only a few minutes before we found the first spout, just east of our harbor.

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The whale was surfacing every few minutes in the ferry lane.

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After watching this whale for a while, we continued west and found another whale near Crissy field. This whale was very close to the shore. Neither animal showed its flukes.

11am:

On our next trip, we started off west and immediately found a gray whale near Fort Mason. The whale came very close to the shore, swimming in about 30 feet of water.

At one point a whale approached our boat within 100 yards.

We eventually found another whale near Fort Mason, but farther from the shore. We also saw spouts near Crissy Field.

2pm:

On this trip e headed back towards the spot where we’d left whales on our previous trip. We found one near St. Francis Yacht Club.

While we were enjoying this whale, a young sea lion came up to our boat and swam around it for ten minutes. It leaped in to the air and darted around us, staying within a few feet of the boat.

The whale moved around the Aquatic Park, slowly making its way west.

Eventually we lost it. We thought near the end we saw spouts just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, so we headed that way to try to get one last look. Near the bridge we saw harbor seals, porpoises, tons of bird activity, and a lot of anchovies on our fish finder.

Special Sighting: Estero Bluffs State Park

Sighting from January 17, 2019 at Estero Bluffs State Park in Cayucos, CA.

Warning: This post includes a photo of a recently stranded dolphin. The photo is not graphic, but the animal is deceased. The photo is the last one in the post.

Estero Bluffs State Park is a beautiful protected area. There are multiple access points from highway 1, making for a secluded adventure. The day we went was misty, right after a lot of rain. This created many small rivers flowing down to the cliffs and the sea. Morro Rock was just barely visible in the distance.

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Wandering along the cliff’s edge, we spotted a multitude of sea and shorebird species, including black turnstones, western grebes, and a surf scoter.

We spotted a couple of egrets hunting in the grass.

Some species, like whimbrels, sandpipers, and the black turnstones, were looking for food in the intertidal zone or up on the bluffs.

Many were bathing in puddles, including a savannah sparrow.

It was high tide. We spotted dozens of harbor seals poking their heads out of the water.

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As we made our way north, my friend Alicia pointed out a burrowing owl right on the edge of the cliff. It was staring straight at us. We gave it a wide berth so as not to disturb it.

The water farther north was a little less protected, so we saw larger surf. There were harbor seals and sea otters in the surf. One pair of sea otters appeared to be a mother and pup, feeding and playing in the kelp.

In this area we spotted a pair of black oystercatchers on the rocky beach.

We slowly turned and headed back south. The tide had gone out significantly and as we came back to our first spot we noticed that lots of the harbor seals were now resting on rocks instead of swimming.

We also spotted a pair of turkey vultures flying low overhead and eventually resting on the bluff edge.

With the ebb of the tide, we also noticed what appeared to be a common dolphin carcass. It was fresh with only a few small scratches on its body. I took the coordinates of the location and called the Morro Bay Marine Mammal Center. They responded to the call and recovered and necropsied the animal later that day.

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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: July 10, 2018

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Happy Days

8am:

On our first trip of the day we found a humpback whale just outside the Golden Gate Bridge. 

We saw several fluke dives from this whale as the tide pushed both of us in towards the bridge. 

We spotted another whale with an all-white fluke 500 yards west of where we were watching the first whale. We stayed with the first whale as it traveled under the bridge and over to Crissy Field.

There were tons of harbor seals and a lot of bird activity in the strait and under the bridge. 

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11am:

We returned to the spot where we'd left the whale on our first trip, but were unable to relocate it. We continued out through the strait and all the way into the Pacific. Once we'd past Mile Rock we turned north, and when we were aligned with Point Bonita we turned east again to come down the north side of the Golden Gate Strait. A passenger saw the humpback spout near Baker Beach. 

We approached the whale, but it appeared to be travelling. It was spouting twice, followed by a fluke dive. It would reappear after 7-8 minutes a good distance west of its last location. 

There was a lot of harbor porpoise activity on this trip.

Sightings Report: June 13, 2018

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Happy Days

2pm: 

On our first trip, we found the humpback Akula near Yellow Bluff, inside the Golden Gate Bridge. A lot of birds circled above, indicating feeding. Akula was spouting 4-5 times followed by a deep fluke dive. 

Akula slowly moved out towards the central bay. A small eastbound boat with an outboard motor was headed towards the whale at about 8 knots. The whale was in the middle of a dive sequence, and so it was staying in pretty much the same spot every time it surfaced. It surfaced twice before it was hit by the small boat. 

The whale made a jerky motion and threw one of it's pectoral fins in the air before disappearing. The boat did not stop.

After a long dive, Akula surfaced again closer to Cavallo Point. Several more small boats sped past him. We saw several more normal dives before we had to return to port. 

The strike has been reported to NOAA.

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11am: 

On our 5pm trip we headed first to Diablo Cove, where we spotted several harbor seals. 

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We continued out to Point Bonita, where the weather was a little rough. We started heading east when the captain spotted a whale by Mile Rock. 

We positioned ourselves above the whale and were pushed "downhill" while watching it. A large group of birds hovered over the whale. 

All sightings reported to Vessel Traffic.