steller sea lion

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 Report: May 27, 2019

Sighting from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

11am:

On this trip we headed to Mile Rock, the last place the whales had been seen. We slowly made our way along the demarcation line, searching for whales.

After searching for a while, we spotted a spout just east of Mile Rock. We approached and found one humpback whale. We know this individual as “Curly.”

We saw a few fluke dives from the animal.

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There were lots of anchovies on the fish finder and lots of birds in the area, suggesting that the whale was feeding.

Near the end of the trip, we saw a huge Steller’s sea lion swim past the boat.

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All the photos from this trip were taken by naturalist Michael Pierson.

2pm:

On our next trip we headed back to the same spot. We found the same whale, Curly, feeding on the north side of the strait near Point Bonita.

There was a good amount of bird activity over the whale. We saw several fluke dives.

The whale moved east over the course of the trip as the tide rose. When we left the whale it was off of Point Diablo.

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 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: 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 10, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

8am: Farallon Islands Trip

We started off the day with good sea conditions and a lot of fog. We saw harbor porpoises and harbor seals on our way out. The forecast said the fog was to extend to 10 miles offshore; however, it didn't start to clear up until we reached the islands. 

Saddle Rock appearing out of the mist. 

Saddle Rock appearing out of the mist. 

When we were close to the Farallons, we spotted our first tufted puffin in the water near the boat. We moved over to Fisherman's Bay and spotted a juvenile yellow-billed loon in the water. 

As we made our way around the islands, we spotted lots of California and Steller sea lions on the shore and a few in the water. Some elephant seals were sighted inside Garbage Gulch. 

There were lots of drifting creatures in the water near the islands, including pelagic tunicates and moon, box, fried egg, and comb jellies. 

We headed off towards the continental shelf, hoping to find whales. We went west of the Farallons and started heading northwest. We found one whale just a few miles from the island but had reports of more whales a few miles ahead from the Oceanic Society on the Salty Lady, so we pushed onward. 

40 miles offshore we found a dozen humpbacks and 2-3 blue whales feeding in over 1000 feet of water. The ocean became a deep turquoise; our equipment said it was 63 degrees. In the photos below, the whales with dark bodies are humpbacks and the ones with light gray bodies are blue whales.

We saw flukes and spouts from the humpbacks and one fluke from a blue whale. One of the humpbacks was entangled in a buoy near the Salty Lady, who reported the whale to the Coast Guard. 

There were 2-3 black-footed albatrosses present at the shelf as well as many gulls. 

Black footed albatross.

Black footed albatross.

We left the area with a long journey home ahead of us. As we passed west of the Farallons, we spotted a lot of thrashing. As we got closer we saw it was a couple of sea lions tossing around an unidentified fish as hungry birds gathered overhead. 

We headed back down the middle of the shipping lane, where we spotted 3 mola mola, also known as ocean sunfish. We picked up a balloon nearby. 

The water as we came in was unusually glassy. The fog had cleared and we had a calm, quick ride in with no whale sightings. 

3pm: 

On our next trip we decided to go back up the shipping lane and see if we had missed any whales on our way back in. We saw a lot of bird activity, harbor porpoises, and a harbor seal as we made our way through San Francisco Bay and then the Golden Gate Strait.

Humpback in front of pilot boat.

Humpback in front of pilot boat.

We ended up finding 4 humpbacks at shipping lane buoys 1/2. We saw a few fluke dives and spouts. Two different whales did tail slaps, with one slapping repeatedly. 

There was some shipping traffic coming in. We spotted California sea lions on the shipping lane buoys and red necked phalaropes in the water. 

All sightings near the shipping lane were reported to Vessel Traffic.

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: July 29, 2017

All sightings from San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat

Farallon Islands Trip, 8am: 

The morning was cold and foggy, but right away we started spotting sea lions and harbor porpoises in the bay. As we made our way past the Golden Gate Bridge, our captain spotted four spouts by Point Bonita. We proceeded slowly and watched humpbacks spread out over the strait do a few fluke dives. We wanted to push out to the islands while the weather was good, so we moved on from those whales sooner than we normally would have. 

Our strategy was to move north up the Marin coastline and then head out to the islands from there. We had nice weather while heading north, and saw lots of porpoises and some bird activity, mainly common murres with their chicks. Through areas where there were known whale populations, we held a speed of 10 knots.

Common murre father with chick. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Common murre father with chick. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Once we turned west the water got choppier as we headed into the swell. Once we reached the pilot station, the water deepened and the ride was a little nicer, and we sped up to 15 knots. The last seven miles to get to the islands are always the most challenging as the water goes from deep back to shallow again, but when we were only 3 miles away I spotted two spouts 500 yards south of us.

We slowed way down and gently turned south. I assumed the whales we had found were humpbacks, but once they were 250 yards away I caught a glimpse of the unmistakable body of a blue whale. 

We drifted with the two blue whales and the Oceanic Society's Salty Lady. The two blues first approached Salty Lady, then moved away from both of the boats.

Just as we started to turn away towards the islands, the two blues surfaced within 50 yards of our boat on our starboard bow and slowly dove under us before resurfacing on our port side. One of the whales seemed to be a lot bigger than the other, arousing suspicion that we had a mother and calf with us. The photos below, taken by Jennifer Hendershott, confirmed our guess. 

We waited until they were 100 yards away before slowly starting to move towards the misty islands. We made it there in about fifteen minutes, and started floating by Sugarloaf on the eastern side of the island when another humpback surfaced in Fisherman's Bay within 100 yards of us. It surfaced several times on our port stern before swimming under us and reappearing on our starboard bow and moving to the other side of Sugarloaf. 

Common murre with krill. 

Common murre with krill. 

The islands were coated with common murres, and Sugarloaf was covered in cormorants and gulls as well. I noticed several tufted puffins resting on the rocks below the murres. 

Tufted puffin. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott. 

Tufted puffin. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott. 

On shore, California and steller sea lions wrestled and barked. Some of them were perched on cliffs over 20 feet above the water, and some swam in small groups close to shore. The noise of the birds and the sea lions carried far out over the water.

Sea lions getting comfy. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Sea lions getting comfy. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

We slowly made our way around the lee side of the island. We had several birders on board, so together we were able to spot several more tufted puffins, a large group of red throated phallaropes, and a few Cassin's auklets. Near Garbage Gulch we spotted a resting elephant seal. 

After going past Saddle Rock, we turned around and headed back for one last look at Sugarloaf. Our photographer, Jen, and some of the passengers caught a glimpse of blue-footed and brown boobies resting on the rock. 

Blue footed booby. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott. 

Blue footed booby. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott. 

Pigeon guillemot taking off. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Pigeon guillemot taking off. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Red throated phallarope losing its breeding plumage. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

Red throated phallarope losing its breeding plumage. Photo by Jennifer Hendershott.

We had an easy ride back to port with the swell and the wind at our back. We did about 17 knots until we got close to the area where we know there can be large concentrations of humpbacks. We slowed to 13 knots, and then down to 10 when we reached the channel. We spotted spouts by Mile Rock and at other points in the strait, but we slowly moved past them to get back to port. 

We reported the humpbacks in the strait to the Coast Guard and to NOAA on the Whale Alert app. 

Full sightings list. 

Full sightings list. 

A huge thank you to SFWT photographer Jennifer Hendershott, who captured most of these photos. You can find more photos on her Facebook page or on the SFWT Facebook page. 

***If you were on this trip 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!***