For decades I have been been participating in science, filming, education and dive adventures in our National Marine Sanctuaries from the Cordell Bank, the Monterey Bay and Channel Island National Marine Sanctuaries including leading public education trips in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Since 2011 Shark Stewards has been leading these specialized ecosystem and wildlife education Sanctuary expeditions. Below is a summary of the 2019 season.
This year has been one of the most fulfilling with the use of the Trident ROV and a permit from NOAA’s White Shark Stewardship program. Using the ROV we are documenting benthic organisms and fish in an area generally inadvisable to diving due to the large concentration of white sharks and general inhospitality of the Gulf. Using the added 360 and 4K camera added to the Trident, and the ability to collect eDNA we are helping ID sharks never before added to the scientific database. We are working on a film project on the use of the Trident in State MPAs- stay tuned to watch it at our International Ocean Film Festival San Francisco in 2021. These trips aren’t always easy, but they are definitely an adventure!
Below are excerpts from field notes from this season’s trips with images to share among our guests on this Flickr Site.
The weather was glorious, and among our guests were students from the University of San Francisco and our stalwart supporters from the Dolphin and South End Swimming and Rowing Clubs. The season started spectacularly with at least 50 Humpback whales spouting and feeding in the Gulf. The season is in transition with the spring birds almost gone and the winter birds arriving, but it is heartening to see our once- not-so-Common Murres now more common after a huge recovery from nets, DDT and intensive egg harvesting. There are still large schools of sardines on the fish finder so there is plenty of food in the Gulf and the activity on the water shows it with diving birds and lunging whales.
Today we had a mild swell and moderate breeze but our guests came prepared with good wet gear and great attitudes. The Silver Fox is seaworthy but the old girl takes on a bit of spray in a breeze. However, one hardy soul stayed on the bow the entire trip like the Ancient Mariner. We stayed in the lee at Mirounga Bay aka “Shark Alley” after waving at the shark divers preparing to enter the cage off Great White Adventures vessel Akula. We deployed the decoy and operated the ROV searching the mid-water column for sharks.
We saw a lot of rockfish and brown sea nettles on the monitor but no sharks. It was like old home week with the white shark tagging crew from Monetery Bay Aquarium’s Hopkins Marine Station scientists tagging and diver Ron Elliot just emerging from the water. We are all friends and I hailed Dr. Salvador Jorgensen who said it was the first day in the tagging season. They reported seeing a surface disturbance but no sharks.
Ron Elliot, who was in our film festival in 2019 with the film Near Miss, had a direct white shark encounter in 2018 getting bombed in the head from behind while diving off Mirounga Bay. A former commercial urchin diver, this man has dived the Farallones for over 25 years and had more white shark encounters than anyone- including several bumps, bonks and near bites. Now retired, and the island part of the state of California’s MPA system, Ron still dives with a camera. Last November, just two days after seeing Ron out at SEFI he was bitten in the arm after rolling into a sharks mouth, camera in hand. Several surgeries and a year later Ron emerges, still diving alone and reported seeing a “little” 14 foot white shark.
On the way home we were delighted by scores of leaping humpbacks, lunge feeding and spouts. Another great day at the Greater Farallones.
September 29 – Cancellation due to large swells and heavy winds.
Another quiet day on the Gulf. When the wind is down our we are all happy but the sky feels desertified with all the seabirds on the surface and not on the wing. We spied several whale blows to the south and passed through scores of common murres sitting on the surface. These plump football shaped birds have small wings and prefer to swim and dive, and like a sea version of playing chicken, they wait until the last minute before fluttering across the wavelets or diving away from the bow. The Trident malfunctioned so we bird and whale watched while the decoy, we lovingly call pinhead (a play on pinniped) floated idly. We did see many Fulmars, a tube- nosed bird related to the Albatross that travel tens of thousands of miles annually to land in our Sanctuary to feed.
Our usual coterie of cavorting sea lions greeted us at Fisherman’s Bay barking and spy hopping as we entered the anchorage. The island is active with 6 species of pinnipeds and we could see many golden Stellar’s sea lions, the larger cousin (2500 pounds, 12 feet) to the California sea lions 850 pounds, 7 feet. Of the seven representatives in the family Pinipidae (also know as feather foots- the taxonomic group that contains the seals and sea lions) we also saw many Northern Fur seals- a success inspects protection and management. In the 1800s Russian and Yankee sealers caused an extirpation, or local extinction at the islands and these seals, killed for their lush fur, were severely depleted in the northeast Pacific. The first pup was born in over 100 years here in 1996. By 2006, 80 pups were born and the Farallon Islands are again an established rookery of over 1500 individuals.
I spied a boil in the Bay suggesting a shark but no fin. The shark diving boat Akula reported divers seeing a shark pass by their cage at the SE Landing. In a week I will be leading a trip to Guadalupe Island in Baja. With 30 meter visibility and a tight aggregation of sharks, I suspect we will be seeing far more than shadows.
At trip’s end we were entertained by two whales feeding in the tidal sheer next to mile rock. Drifting along in neutral we enjoyed one whale right alongside, and another surfacing right at the stern of the boat. An excellent homecoming!
Lunge feeding humpback whales, breaches abounding and a white shark investigating the decoy made this trip iconic. Lead by my former student Viktoria Kuehn MS and Shark Stewards intern Tiffany Pfeiffer (while I was off filming white sharks at Guadalupe Island), this was one of the best trips of the year. The picture tells the story!
Cancellation due to gale force winds. Even though this is the best weather of the season, sometimes heavy weather is the reality in the Gulf!
The Gulf was almost as good as it gets with a nearly flat sea and 5 knots of breeze. Smoke from the Kincaide fire blown offshore mixed with a light marine layer obscuring the islands as we headed west into the Gulf. Two whales spouted a half mile south as we turned north into the Bonita channel and inside the infamous Potato patch. The day after opening day for crab season hundreds of small boats plied the waters with us this morning and it is fortunate the swell is sleeping or there might be a few more shipwrecks added to the Gulf’s treacherous tally. For our passengers, this was an unusual trip due to the opening of crab season. The Silver Fox is a commercial boat, that gives up fishing for our wildlife charters. Having set pots on Saturday, the first day of the crab season, they needed to check their pots or the crabs might be lost.
On the way west we stopped and collected over a hundred crabs for the passengers who had fishing licenses, making the limit of 10 for each as well as getting a lesson in Decapodia- the ten legged crustaceans, locally known as Dungeness crab. This year’s recruitment of Dungeness looks promising and the traps were filled with fat females laden with red eggs. Only the males measuring over 5 3/4 inch carapace width are kept and the females go back into the drink to eventually enter the Bay or eelgrass beds to lay their brood.
These crabs are a kind of ocean canary, measured by the biotoxin domoic acid- a byproduct of a plankton bloom. This chemical causes dementia and neurological effects in mammals. In 2015 OEHHA, and the Department of Public Health, recommends closures, delay of openings, and re-openings of fisheries based on high levels of toxic substances, including domoic acid. Although the recreational fishery is open, two hot spots of domoic acid have been identified with the associated warnings. The commercial fishery has been delayed until late November but to reduce entanglements in buoy gear: a serious threat to many sharks migrating through the Sanctuary.
Another great trip with another great group! It is crab season and the marina and bay are active in the early morning. Crab pots are stacked ten high on the commercial pier, awaiting the opening of the commercial season November 20. On the port side is a sad sign of neglect, a sunken fishing boat with a sheen of diesel spreading in the lagoon. This and other fishing boats were part of a raid by California Fish and wildlife on Vietnamese fishers who were caught with illegal gear and fish. The booming of the sunken boat was delayed, in part because the pirate owner has disappeared. We are fortunate to have Fish and Wildlife officers protecting our ocean from poachers. 20% off all fish comes from Illegal, Unregulated or Unreported fishing (IUU) and with good regulations and enforcement our coastal waters are faring much better than SE Asia where we work on shark and marine protection during the summer months.
The changing of the season is bringing a change in wildlife in the Gulf of the Farallones. We are seeing Brandt’s cormorants, elegant terns and surf scoters in the outer bay and coastal waters. In the deep waters beneath the Golden Gate we watched scores of harbor porpoises feeding and leaping along the tidal sheer. Motoring in a cushion of fog we dodged the many buoys set by recreational crab fishermen, a hard to whales as well as mariners. On the way we pulled the boat’s crab pots and the first 3 were empty without bait, a sign of poachers pillaging crabs. Further out we spied a small boat fishing near the boat’s string; in an area with few fish. This suspected poacher watched as we pulled traps with 15- 20 mature male crabs, rebaited and motored on.
Soon we encountered two Humpback whales feeding, slapping their long pectoral fins, fluking and even breaching. In the distance other whales breached sending up tremendous explosions of whitewater!
Motoring west, the fog lifted revealing the craggy profile of SE Farallon Island. As the west wind blew the last wisps away we entered Fishermen’s Bay, welcomed by the barks of the California Sea Lions, Fur Seals and Stellars Sea Lions. Cruising south to Mirounga Bay, we passed the Farallon Island Patrol, a volunteer network, unloading staff and supplies at the SE crane. The Derek M Baylis, a charter yacht had their cage deployed and I waved at my old shipmate, Captain Jim Linderman as he waited for his divers to emerge. On the wing were shearwaters, common murres, ashy storm petrels, Fulmars and even a black footed albatross. The sharks are great, but the islands are definitely for the birds.
Mirounga Bay is protected from the west wind and we deployed the ROV, filming fish and the benthic habitat as pinhead and snuffy, our two foam decoys floated listlessly. Our chide engineer Jeff reported a white shadow streaking by twenty feet below but no direct investigations. Oyster catchers and puffins squealed and squeaked as we watched the decoys for a shark, like a Labrador waiting for the ball to be flung.
After 3 passes the sun lowered and wind began to chill so we packed it up, bid the unseen sharks adieu and headed east past more leaping whales back to the Golden Gate. In the passing waves we could spy mola mola and their favorite meal, brown sea nettles and moon jellies in the small swell. The short days and the cooling waters are leaving us with two more trips to run until next year. Pray for sharks!
Join us on our last two 2019 trips to the Farallon Islands.