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Watching Whales

Started: 2018-05-15 20:15:56

Submitted: 2018-05-15 23:51:27

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator takes a whale-watching boat trip to the Farallon Islands

On a clear day, standing somewhere on the coast in San Francisco, I can look west, out into the ocean, and see a small group of islands on the horizon, 25 miles out to sea. These are the Farallon Islands, formerly occupied by a lighthouse and keeper; now occupied by a small marine research station -- and a giant colony of birds.

I got my best view of the islands to date through patchy clouds while climbing out of San Francisco on my way to Hawaii in March. The islands themselves are a wildlife refuge and closed to the public, but the islands are a popular boating destination from San Francisco. Visiting the islands has been on my list of things I want to do in the two years that I've lived in San Francisco, and now that my time in the city is limited, I'm trying desperately to burn through my todo list.

The easiest way to get to the Farallon Islands is a whale-watching trip. I bought a ticket for a whale-watching trip with San Francinco Whale Tours leaving at 08:00 on Saturday morning, 12 May. I arrived at the designated rendezvous -- the kiosk at the entrance to Pier 39 -- at 07:30 and joined the growing group of passengers waiting to join the trip. Our bearded naturalist-guide emerged from the kiosk, signed us in, gave us a brief orientation, and took us to the dock behind the pier, where the 65-foot twin-hulled Outer Limits was waiting for us. We boarded, got another brief orientation from the crew, and set out into San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco skyline in the morning sun
San Francisco skyline in the morning sun

A thin haze hung over the bay, backlit by the morning sun, obscuring the details of the city and Alcatraz. With the boat underway, the breeze kicked up.

Alcatraz lurking in the morning haze on San Francisco Bay
Alcatraz lurking in the morning haze on San Francisco Bay

As we approached the Golden Gate Bridge, the boat slowed to spot a whale leaving the bay ahead of us. Our naturalist-guide told us that whales like to eat in the rich waters of the bay, then go out into the ocean where it's quieter to rest. All we saw was the whale spout spraying above the water, with an occasional glance at the top of the whale's head. (Our guide quipped that whale-watching is really mostly about whale-searching.) I did, at least, get a good picture of the tourists on the boat leaning over the railing searching for whale-sign, with the world's most beautiful bridge in the background.

Whale-watching tourists approaching the Golden Gate Bridge
Whale-watching tourists approaching the Golden Gate Bridge

We followed the whale under the bridge, then continued under the bridge. (I was at least as interested by seeing the bridge up close and personal than in looking for marine mammals. My engineering obsession seemed unique among the other passengers.)

Nothern end of the Golden Gate Bridge in light fog
Nothern end of the Golden Gate Bridge in light fog

We saw another whale immediately in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, and followed it around the shipping channel. This was obviously a humpback whale, since we could actually see the hump on its dorsal ridge. We also saw two whales swimming together, which our guide said was probably a cow and her calf (though I wasn't fast enough to get a good picture).

Humpback whale under the Golden Gate Bridge
Humpback whale under the Golden Gate Bridge
Humpback whale fluke dive in front of the Golden Gate Bridge
Humpback whale fluke dive in front of the Golden Gate Bridge

By the time we lost the whale we'd drifted back under the bridge, giving me one last chance to capture a dramatic shot of the superstructure on the underside of the bridge deck as we sailed under again, back towards the ocean.

Under the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge
Under the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge

We continued westward, past Point Bonita, and followed the Bonita Channel north-west along the Marin coast, avoiding the shoals immediately north of the main ship channel, and giving me a great view of the coast, shrouded in the morning fog.

Point Bonita Lighthouse
Point Bonita Lighthouse

As soon as we left the narrow Golden Gate and passed Point Bonita into the open ocean, the wind picked up and the seas grew rougher. The 65-foot boot rocked up and down on 10-foot swells, buffeted by smaller, more frequent waves moving at an oblique angle to the swells. This was my first time sailing on the open ocean -- all of my prior experience on the water has been on larger passenger ferries on protected littoral waterways -- and it was not inspiring confidence.

We lost sight of the shore in the low clouds and sailed into the void, our visibility limited by the clouds and by the high seas. I began to feel seasick, and some of my fellow passengers acted out the obvious cliche leaning over the railing to wretch into the ocean. I clung to the starboard railing near the stern, staring out into the gray rolling ocean under the low gray sky.

Whale-watching tourists search for whales in the Gulf of the Farallones
Whale-watching tourists search for whales in the Gulf of the Farallones

After more than an hour underway, we stopped to look for whale-sign in the middle of the ocean. When we stopped, the regular bouncing of the boat on the waves, mostly constrained along the port-starboard axis of the boat, became an uneasy rolling as waves caught the boat and spun us around. I wasn't sure that was an improvement. I spotted the occasional spout, or what might have been a spout in the rolling waves, but the seas obscured any view of the whale under the surface of the ocean.

After another half-hour underway, I spotted the outline of an island hidden in the clouds ahead of us. The hint of island grew more distinct as we approached, eventually resolving into a large granite knob bleached white in the salt air under millenia of bird droppings.

Whale-watching tourists at the Faralon Islands
Whale-watching tourists at the Faralon Islands

We found some shelter in the lee side of the island, where the winds were lighter and the seas calmer, as we congregated on the deck looking at the island. The highest point of the island held a tower where a modern, automated beacon stood on the base of the nineteenth-century lighthouse.

Lighthouse on the top of the Faralon Islands
Lighthouse on the top of the Faralon Islands

We saw birds everywhere. Our guide chatted about all of the birds, pointing out puffins swimming casually in the water near the boat (35 nests on the island, each with two adults) and the masses of gulls and murres and more species than I could count.

Birds at the Faralon Islands
Birds at the Faralon Islands

We sailed clockwise around the lumpy island, past the crane that functioned as a dock for the research station on the island. Our guide pointed out pinnipeds lounging on the beach (or at least the flat area of the island that passed for a beach), though I wasn't close enough to see much and I didn't really feel compelled to let go of the railing for long enough to pull out my binoculars (nor was I convinced I would see much).

Dock and buildings at the Faralon Islands
Dock and buildings at the Faralon Islands

We continued our circuit of the islands, finding bigger swells on the windy western side of the island, finally returning to the somewhat-sheltered cove on the lee side of the island where we started, then turned to the east to begin sailing back to San Francisco at noon, after forty-five minutes in the vicinity of the islands.

The skies turned gray again as we turned to the city, and I watched the island fade into the haze behind the boat. I began to feel seasick again and found a place I could stand, facing the back of the boat, gazing at the horizon, grabbing the edge of the little sink on a little counter just aft of the cabin. When the boat rocked from side to side I moved to stay more-or-less upright, with the horizon as my reference point. As we sailed closer to land I saw more sailboats out on the rough seas. The salt spray from the ocean covered everything; I had trouble keeping my glasses dry enough to see through, and my Camelbak hydration nozzle tasted of salt.

Whale-watching tourists return to San Francisco on the Outer Limits
Whale-watching tourists return to San Francisco on the Outer Limits

After an hour and a half sailing through gray water under gray skies I could at last see the Marin Headlands looming in the distance. I repressed the urge to shout "Land ho!" as we approached the Golden Gate. I began to feel better as we approached the bay. The clouds parted and other passengers came out of the cabin to brave the salt spray to stand on the deck and look at the land coming closer.

Air Mobility Command C-5 Galaxy (70042) over the Golden Gate
Air Mobility Command C-5 Galaxy (70042) over the Golden Gate

As we approached the Golden Gate Bridge, a C-5 Galaxy military cargo plane flew low over the Marin Headlands, briefly casting a large shadow on the hillside next to the bridge.

We passed under the Golden Gate Bridge to enter San Francisco Bay at last. The wind kicked the bay into a frenzy, with whitecaps on tiny waves, but the tiny waves were nothing compared to what we had experienced on the open ocean. We sailed past Crissy Field, where windsurfers were enjoying the wind, then passed Fort Mason and Aquatic Park. I knew all of the landmarks well from the land, but I enjoyed the new perspective I had from the water.

Schooner Alma sailing out of Aquatic Park
Schooner Alma sailing out of Aquatic Park

We docked at Pier 39 shortly after 14:00 and disembarked. After six hours on the water the land felt strangely still. I sat on a bench on the pier and ate the snacks I had brought but didn't eat on the boat, then picked up a burrito at Chipotle before heading home after a boat trip to remember.

For more photos from my whale-watching trip, see Photos on 2018-05-12.

Some sort of pelican flying in San Francisco Bay
Some sort of pelican flying in San Francisco Bay
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