A Whale of a Time: Farallon Island Log

Few days on the gulf of the Farallon are glassy and calm. This dynamic, energetic marine environment is often buffeted by winds and waves and high productivity driven by coastal upwelling. The weather was calm but the whales were anything but, with lunge feeding, spouts and flukes surrounding the vessel in such numbers it would make Captain Ahab roll over in a cold sweat and whale lovers leap out of bed hours early for a trip like this.

Heading out in the light fog we were treated to a male California sea lion tucking into a salmon as gulls and harbor porpoises fed on anchovies in the turbulent, deeper waters near the Golden Gate. He almost ate a Bay gull with his lox as the assertive birds dive in for a peck!

Humpback Whale fin

The islands raised above the horizon early, and by the time we reached W buoy we were surrounded by humpback whales, escorted by a raft of sea lions making an easy meal of the bait concentrated by the bubble blowing leviathans. In the distance we spied fulmars, shearwaters floating patiently, waiting for the west wind, and what looked like a black footed albatross, but the birds took second stage to the whales. We could have spent the day among the whales but the island beckoned and we made a smooth passage to SE Farallon Island. The birds using the island are in transition mode with some remaining double crested cormorants peppering the white rocks, common murres. A few endangered ashy petrels (half the roughly 5000 population in the NE Pacific use the island to nest) flitted above the brown, plankton rich water with rhinoceros auklets swimming near the pinniped populated rocks.

Mola Mola

The trips are for the birds, but we are here for the sharks. Around 20 adult white sharks patrol the waters in the fall and early winter months, awaiting their prey to leave the island or return from fishing to haul out. Like a patient lurking line in an island in and out, these sharks are here for the big burger in the form of a northern elephant seal. We deploy our decoy (under permit by NOAA ‘s White Shark Stewardship Program with the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary) with attached underwater camera and wait as we learn about the fascinating history of the islands, the explorers and sealers, the egg war, the history of coast guard and naval occupation and the wilderness act and Sanctuary protections that followed to give us this wildlife experience today. As we float in shark alley, the wildlife biologists on the island make their own recordings of seabirds, seals, shark attacks and human visitation. Finally, it is time to head back to the mainland, and reeling in the decoy, we are delighted by a goodbye view of a white shark passing beneath unseen but for the video, to be enjoyed on the monitor afterwards and here.

On the way back we are delighted by several giant mola mola (sunfish) and more whales, until we are forced to pry ourselves away from a truly magical connection with our fellow mammals, and a rarely seen shark.