sooty shearwater

Special Sighting: Captain Dave's Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari

Sighting on June 18, 2018 from vessel Manute'a

As a naturalist, I'm always looking for ethical wildlife experiences when I travel. My first "special sighting" was in my hometown of Dana Point, California with Dana Wharf. Since then I've posted about seeing orcas in the San Juan Islands, spotting fur seals in Tasmania, and observing elephant seals and a beached blue whale along the California coastline.

Last weekend I found myself again in my beloved hometown, the place that inspired my love of the ocean. I decided to go whale watching. 

Captain Dave's Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari is a well known local business. Anybody who spends time down at the harbor knows about "Dolphin Dave." As a local, I was stoked to be heading out for the first time on their catamaran sailboat Manute'a. 

The crew was led by Captain Dan and naturalist Craig. We headed north out of the harbor, noting some California sea lions on a buoy.  We found our first group of dolphins near the Dana Point Headlands. 

The crew estimated there were about a hundred long-beaked common dolphins in the group. The dolphins exhibited feeding behaviors, surging through the water to chase the fish. Hungry birds including brown pelicans and gulls hovered and dove near the group. There were calves present in the group as well.

The dolphins led us north, bow riding and wake riding. When we reached the Laguna Beach city limit, we left the dolphins and turned west towards the edge of the continental shelf, which in southern California is only a few miles offshore. 

We had only gone a few miles when we found another group of two hundred dolphins. The crew identified them as short-beaked common dolphins. 

This group also had calves, but were exhibiting more social behaviors.

We saw lots of aerial exhibitions, exposed bellies, and calves porpoising with adults. 

We turned back south along the shelf, searching for a whale. We spotted lots of sooty shearwaters clumsily taking flight or resting on the surface of the water. 

After progressing south for a while, the crew spotted a spout half a mile to the southwest, followed by an enormous fluke. We approached the general area where the whale had taken its dive, then waited for it to resurface. About ten minutes later, it surfaced just over a hundred yards away from the boat. 

It was a blue whale. It spouted five times, slowly circling the vessel. 

On the fifth spout it did a fluke dive. We were perfectly positioned to capture the ventral view.

According to the company's Instagram account, this whale was identified as Kinko, a female who was seen for the first time in four years. 

There was also another group of long-beaked common dolphins in the area, but they did not approach our vessel. There was one other boat in the area. 

The captain and crew had a lot of interesting information to share. I'm a Dana Point native who works on a whale watching boat and I learned interesting new facts that I'd never heard before. The operation was professional and respectful of the wildlife. At the end, we even got to taste Mrs. Captain Dave's famous brownies. 

You can find out more about Captain Dave at www.dolphinsafari.com. I highly reccomend following their beautiful Instagram page @captdaveswhalewatching

Sightings Report: September 23, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

3pm: 

The previous trip had spotted whales past the precautionary area 13 miles offshore, so that's where we headed for this trip. An outgoing tide and very little wind made for a beautiful ride out through the shipping lane, where we saw a harbor seal, harbor porpoises, and California sea lions resting on the shipping lane buoys. 

Humpback whale.

Humpback whale.

We spotted the first spout southwest of buoys 1 and 2. As we slowly approached, we found that there were 6-7 humpbacks feeding in the area. Most were feeding by themselves, a few hundred yards away from other whales. One pair surfaced together. 

The water was 90-100 feet deep, with huge bait balls showing up on our fish finder. We could see the anchovies swarming at the surface as we looked over the side of the boat. We also noticed some jellyfish in the water as well. 

Whale with sooty shearwater and container ship nearby.

Whale with sooty shearwater and container ship nearby.

The whales didn't do many fluke dives, probably because most of the food was close to the surface and there was no need to expend energy on deep dives. Often there would be long intervals between surfacing. Some shipping activity was happening in the shipping lane about a few miles away. 

Almost a fluke dive, but not quite!

Almost a fluke dive, but not quite!

We noticed lots of sooty shearwaters at this spot, as well as gulls, pelicans, and murres. 

The sighting was reported to Vessel Traffic so the nearby container ships were aware of the presence of the whale. 

If you were on one of these trips and have photos, send them in to info.whalegirl@gmail.com! I'd love to add them to this post for others to enjoy (with credit to you). Thank you!

Sightings Report: September 13, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am: Farallon Islands Trip

As we headed out into the Golden Gate Strait, a thick wet mist was there to greet us. We saw lots of harbor porpoises on our way out, but I didn't expect to see any whales. That meant it was a surprise when one of our passengers reported a spout while we were passing Bonita Cove. 

Point Bonita.

Point Bonita.

Sure enough, there was a humpback whale in the middle of the strait. We hadn't seen them that close to the bay in over a week. A nearby gull had an anchovy in its beak, confirming the reason for their presence.

We watched the whale spout a few times from several hundred yards away, then started to slowly move west. As we did, another humpback surfaced 200 yards ahead of us. We waited for it to pass us as it headed east towards the other whale. Later we would get reports that another whale was about to join them. We also noted a parasitic jaeger harassing a group of elegant terns before we left the area. 

We headed straight out west through the shipping lane. The water was unusually calm, and as we progressed farther the mist dissipated a little. We saw lots of California sea lions resting on the shipping lane bouys, and a few leaping out of the water near our boat. 

We also spotted a group of 5+ sooty shearwaters, a flesh-footed shearwater, 2 Cassin's auklets, and some red-necked phalaropes in flight in the 10 miles before we reached the islands. 

The Farallon islands appear in the distance.

The Farallon islands appear in the distance.

Once we reached the Farallons, we spotted 2 tufted puffins in the water near Sugarloaf just outside of Fisherman's Bay.

Tufted Puffin.

Tufted Puffin.

There were lots of common murres, gulls, and all three species of cormorants (pelagic, Brandt's, and double-crested). 

California and Steller's sea lions rested on the rocky shore. As we made our way around the islands toward Saddle Rock, we sighted some elephant seals resting in Garbage Gulch. Near Mirounga Bay there were Northern fur seals resting on the rocks. 

We also noted several species of invertebrates, including a salp, moon jellies, box jellies, and pelagic tunicates. 

The forecast warned that the wind was going to pick up dramatically in the afternoon, so we started to head back towards shore, hoping to find whales on the way in. The passengers reported a whale near shipping lane buoys 1/2, but the whale was not resighted. While we were waiting we picked up a balloon that was floating in the water. 

California sea lions on the buoy.

California sea lions on the buoy.

By the time we got back to Point Bonita, there was thick fog and a light rain. We found two humpbacks in the strait. One was moving from the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge towards Baker Beach, and the other was closer to Diablo Cove.

Humpback fluke.

Humpback fluke.

We saw a few fluke dives and some harbor porpoises before we headed in for the day. 

All sightings were reported to Vessel Traffic. 

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If you were on one of these trips and have photos, send them in to info.whalegirl@gmail.com! I'd love to add them to this post for others to enjoy (with credit to you). Thank you!

Sightings Report: September 9, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Happy Days

9am: 

We found the humpbacks in the middle of the shipping lane, near buoys 3/4. There were two humpbacks diving and feeding in 40 feet of water. 

There was some bird activity near the whales, as well as some shipping activity. We spotted a sooty shearwater. There was significant swell, but no wind. 

Humpback with distinctive dorsal fin.

Humpback with distinctive dorsal fin.

One whale approached within 100 yards of us. We saw very few fluke dives. We also spotted a mola mola, or sunfish, feeding on a jellyfish. 

Humpback fluke.

Humpback fluke.

California sea lions were spotted on the shipping lane buoys. One more humpback was spotted near the junction buoy on our way back in. 

California sea lions on the shipping lane buoys 3 and 4.

California sea lions on the shipping lane buoys 3 and 4.

We also saw a parasitic jaeger harassing a group of elegant terns. All whale sightings were reported to Vessel Traffic.

Parasitic jaeger with elegant terns.

Parasitic jaeger with elegant terns.

If you were on one of these trips and have photos, send them in to info.whalegirl@gmail.com! I'd love to add them to this post for others to enjoy (with credit to you). Thank you!

Sightings Report: August 13, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours Vessel Kitty Kat

3pm: 

On my first trip of the day we found whales right under the center span of the Golden Gate Bridge - the same spot as yesterday. In fact, it turned out to be the same humpback whale hunting near the north tower of the bridge. 

Humpback fluke.

Humpback fluke.

The wind was blowing at an estimated 20 knots with stronger gusts. A strong tide pulled us continuously east. We approached the whale slowly, making sure to give plenty of space as a large container ship passed by us. 

The whale was feeding in 120 feet of water packed all the way to the bottom with anchovies. We saw several fluke dives within 50 yards of our boat; we floated in neutral the whole time and never ran more than 3 knots when within 200 yards of the whales. We got a great view of the blowhole and tubercles!

6pm: 

By the time we headed back out at 6pm, there was a thick fog over the bay. We still had about 200 yards of visibility at best - sometimes it was closer to 50 yards. The winds were 20 knots and we threw some spray as we headed out towards the Golden Gate Bridge. 

I had a feeling that the whale would be moving out with the tide towards Diablo Cove, so we decided to slowly move up the north side of the Golden Gate Strait. Within a few minutes I had located a spout 150 yards from us, south of Diablo Cove. 

Humpback fluke in the fog.

Humpback fluke in the fog.

We watched a few spouts followed by a fluke dive, then we slowly moved to the north side of the strait to avoid a large outbound container ship and a tug pulling a barge. We also sighted a lot of aggressive harbor porpoise activity, including many mothers with calves, and a harbor seal. 

After a few sightings we lost the whale, and we headed back to the middle of the strait. There we found not only our whale, but a massive group of swarming sooty shearwaters. The group was twice the size of the previous day's; the birds did not seem to be feeding. There was lots of other bird activity in the area as well. 

All whale sightings were reported to the Coast Guard and to NOAA via the Whale Alert app. 

***If you were on one of these trips and have photos, send them in to info.whalegirl@gmail.com! I'd love to add them to this post for others to enjoy (with credit to you). Thank you!***

Sightings Report: August 12, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours Vessel Kitty Kat

3pm: 

We anticipated winds of up to 30 miles per hour at 3:00, and as we headed out we threw a lot of spray. Luckily we didn't need to go out very far - we spotted a spout inside the Golden Gate Bridge at Cavallo Point. 

Humpback fluke in front of Crissy Field.

Humpback fluke in front of Crissy Field.

There were two large container ships approaching, so we kept a distance of at least 200 yards from the humpback and moved slowly if we had to move at all. We saw several fluke dives, and noticed a group of 10-15 harbor seals all swimming west. 

We noticed a lot of bird activity and a few harbor porpoises in the area as well. The whale moved slightly south towards the center span of the bridge and stayed roughly in that area for the rest of the time we were there. We had two fluke dives within 100 yards of us; we floated in neutral while the whale swam between us and the bridge. 

The wind continued to blow at an estimated 25 knots, with gusts of 30+ knots. 

The tip of a humpback fluke, with San Francisco in the background.

The tip of a humpback fluke, with San Francisco in the background.

6pm: 

By the time we headed out at 6pm, the wind had subsided a little but the swell had increased. At Fort Point, a kitesurfer alerted us to someone struggling in the water. We approached a windsurfer who had lost his sail in the high winds and was being pulled west by the outgoing tide. We asked if he required assistance. He replied in the affirmative, and the Coast Guard asked us to perform the rescue. We pulled him on board and looked for his sail the rest of the trip. We were unable to locate it.

We proceeded into the Golden Gate Strait among large swells and some whitecaps, setting a course for Mile Rock. Once there we spotted a spout and a humpback's back 150 yards away. 

A swarm of sooty shearwaters. 

A swarm of sooty shearwaters. 

We slowly positioned ourselves above the whale and put the boat in neutral so we could have the swell at our back. As we watched the spout, we also noticed a huge group of hundreds of sooty shearwaters circling on the horizon. They approached us and engulfed our boat before hovering over the whale. There was a lot of bird activity and harbor porpoises surfed the waves all around us.

Whale spout surrounded by shearwaters.

Whale spout surrounded by shearwaters.

All sightings were reported to the Coast Guard and to NOAA via the Whale Alert app. 

***If you were on one of these trips and have photos, send them in to info.whalegirl@gmail.com! I'd love to add them to this post for others to enjoy (with credit to you). Thank you!***