Monday, September 12, 2011

A Briny Blast from the Past

The Gulf of the Farallones
A World of Adventure Beyond the Golden Gate
What could be finer than spending the day on the mighty Pacific Ocean, twenty-seven mile off shore in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, looking for whales?  What could be more refreshing than tasting fresh salty spray as you slice though the water, seeing the sun and the sea shine bright, feeling the soothing rock of the boat?  What could be better than the sense of camaraderie and adventure as you steam under the Golden Gate?

“Hey Gwen, you goin’ on the whale watch?”

“Yeah.  Sure.  You bet.”  She slides me what must be a look reserved for some crackpot destined to the loony bin.  “It’s been almost a year since I threw up for eight hours straight.”  Then she walks away.

But…but what’s better than the whales, I think.  What’s better than them?

Well I guess a whole lot if the sea is a sheet of whitecaps, if the wind whips unrelenting over its surface.  If the ocean swells rise up and down, up and down, and the boat lurches through it all like a rickety wooden roller coaster ride without end.  I guess a lot if you vomit over the rail for the duration of the trip.  It’s been known to happen; the weather, and the Dramamine, does not always cooperate.  And although I’ve never myself puked on a Pacific white-sided dolphin as it gracefully, playfully rides the bow waves of a boat, I hear other people have.

I am now resigned to the fact that not everyone shares my somewhat obnoxious enthusiasm for whale watching.  Nor my sea legs and iron stomach.

“Hey John, are you going with us on Sunday?”
“Keith, you joining us this year?”
“Whale watch?”
“Whale watch?”
“Whale watch?”

Okay, well, maybe not totally resigned.

*  *  *

Safely back from my most recent voyage with the San Francisco-based Oceanic Society, I sit on the couch in my apartment as the room gently sways back and forth, and think back on an extraordinary day.  Unlike the somewhat notorious trip a year ago, which is now not so fondly referred to as The York-Fest, the weather is much more accommodating.  Skies are gray but seas calm when we meet at 7:45 a.m. for check in and orientation.  As we huddle together by a corner of the Marina Green, our naturalist for the day gives a short talk on the history and importance of the marine sanctuary, on possible animal sightings, and on seasickness etiquette.  Forty-five minutes later we are underway.

*  *  *

The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is a great big wonderful, windy and wild place: 1255 square miles of water stretching from Bodega Bay to the headlands just north of San Francisco, and 35 miles out to sea.  The sanctuary boundaries also encompass Bolinas Lagoon, the sandy coastline and rocky inter-tidal zone of Point Reyes National Seashore, and the shallow waters of Tomales Bay.  The islands themselves, a collection of craggy seamounts and granite rocks around 80 million years old, rise up from the ocean floor and form a desolate but immensely productive centerpiece named the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.  With its two neighboring marine sanctuaries, Cordell Banks to the north and Monterey Bay south, the area combines for a grand total of over 7000 square miles, one of the largest protected swaths of water on Earth.  In the early spring and winter the California gray whale swims steadily through it all: north to the Chuchki Sea in Alaska to feed, south to the Pacific Coast lagoons of the Baja Peninsula to mate, calve and relax.  At 3000 miles in length it is the longest annual migration of any mammal.  These smaller (in leviathan terms), barnacle-encrusted baleen whales swim close to shore, especially on the northward journey when young are present, and can often be viewed from land.

It is the summer months, however, that for my money offers the greatest rewards, and brings avid whale watchers expectantly back out to the Farallones.  That’s when seasonal currents and weather patterns serve up a tasty smorgasbord of microscopic food at the edge of the continental shelf, just a few miles beyond the islands.  In a process known as upwelling, deep cold water rises to the surface, bringing with it tiny plants and animals: the basis of a colossal food chain that support thousands of nesting birds, small fish, big fish, krill, seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoise, and of course the great whales.  Starting in June the Gulf of the Farallones and the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge set the stage as humpbacks and blues arrive from the tropics on cue, the stars of a massive feeding frenzy that can last well into October.  It’s one of the best places in the world to snag a front row seat as the drama unfolds.

*  *  *

“The only thing we guarantee,” our naturalist avows, “is that our boat will pass twice beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Chuckles all around.  Several people look west, toward where the bridge should be, but its lofty silhouette is shrouded beneath a thick gray wall of fog.  Above the low clouds, the weather report says, are high clouds.  Not to worry, I remind myself.  I’ve made the trip under perfectly blue skies when nature has been shy and nothing much has been spotted, done the same without an iota of sunshine when the sightings have been non-stop, when whales have swam toward the boat to watch us!  So with a couple other familiar diehards, I’m back again.  We know extraordinary things can happen.

Our first stop is just beyond the bridge, a quick rendezvous with a group of pudgy harbor seals that loiter on the rocks by Point Bonita Lighthouse.  The sanctuary waters are home to one fifth of the entire California harbor seal population.  These reserved, shy aquatic mammals eye the boat suspiciously when we approach, as if we might leap overboard and abduct a few, so after a quick look-see we leave them in peace and continue west.  Between our boat and the cliffs of the Marin Headlands, several glistening, dark brown triangles of dorsal fin flash above the surface; it’s the usual, fleeting glance of harbor porpoise elusively darting about at the entrance to the bay.  Our next encounter is with a tangle of sea lions crowded on top of a green lane marker used by big ships navigating the narrow Golden Gate.  They are resting and snoozing on the buoy, but immediately snap to attention as we stop to check them out.  Much more gregarious, and much noisier, than their cousin the harbor seal, they bark and roar in a mass of brown blubber.  Its hard to believe they can launch themselves out of the water so high, and land so successfully on the buoy as it rocks back and forth, but the entire surface is covered with these acrobatic pinipeds.  We leave them flopping around and complaining as they settle back in for a siesta.

On to the islands, which are another hour and a half away.  Time to chat with friends and fellow whale watchers, always keeping one eye on the ocean for, well…anything that might prove interesting.  And time to start eating.  The boat is only 50 or so feet in length, and most of our time is spent standing still, staring out to sea.  Its not like we’re hiking Mount Tamalpais, or running laps around the deck, but being on the water makes you hungry.  Chips, pretzels, apples, broccoli and cauliflower tops, a turkey sandwich, a ham sandwich, chocolate chip cookies, water, a cold six-pack of Heineken to share on the return trip: its all packed and ready to enjoy.  Let’s just say my gear is much, much lighter by the time we motor back up to the dock in San Francisco.

*  *  *

In January of 1981, just days before leaving office, President Jimmy Carter signed into being the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.  The islands and their surrounding waters have always played an important, if sometimes dubious, role for the West Coast of America.  They were dubbed the Islands of Saint James by early explorers, but soon renamed the Farallones, from the Portuguese word denoting a rocky, bare cliff face.  Indigenous Indians of the California coast had referred to them as the Islands of the Dead and would not step foot on them, but the European newcomers quickly recognized and exploited their riches.  During the Gold Rush, egg poachers supplying the burgeoning city of San Francisco drove the population of common murres that nest on the Farallones almost to extinction.  The eggs were in such high demand they fetched more than a dollar for a dozen.  Decades later the islands’ strategic position proved reassuring for both World Wars.  Radio and radar installations for the military were well suited to any advance warning threats to the mainland and aided navigational efforts for Allied ships and aircraft.  After the wars the Coastguard took control, eventually passing jurisdiction to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  In the 1970’s, unfortunately, the ocean floor became the repository for containers of low level radioactive waste, and a major oil spill fouled the sanctuary waters.  The scientific community, however, was beginning to understand the biological significance of the islands and surrounding ocean; with the bill signed the area became protected from (hopefully) a slew of future harmful practices.

*  *  *

The rest of our trip is nothing but humpbacks.  By the time we reach the Farallones their misty spouts pepper the horizon.  We can take our pick, and spend the next couple hours observing various individuals or groups.  One, two, three breaths at the surface and a big arch in the back signals a dive.  Over and over in slow motion the beautiful humpback whales slide gracefully into the deep, raising their tails high in salute.

“We identify individuals by the distinctive color patterns and markings on the underside of the flukes,” our naturalist offers.  Moments later he snaps a picture as another humpback sounds.

“Even the barnacle pattern can supply clues and make photo-identification possible.”  Spout, spout, spout, dive.  Click.  “Oh, look at that one.  All white underneath; very recognizable.”

Two whales, in unison, dive.  Synchronized cetacean swimming.  Click.

“Scientists now know that many of these whales spend the summer here and travel to Costa Rica for the winter months.  They repeat this year after year.”

Smart whales, I think.

Later we happen upon a cow-calf pair.  The youngster is practicing the art of breaching.  Little baby splashes in the distance alert us to the action, so off we go to investigate.  Several dolphins are already in the vicinity, darting about the two whales with usual curiosity and playfulness.  As we draw closer the mother whale slowly raises its long pectoral fin high in the air, slapping the water repeatedly.  The captain revs up the engine in an attempt to entice the dolphins in a bow ride, but they seem much more interested in the humpbacks, so he slows down and circles back toward the whales.  Rolling on its side the long gnarly fin of the adult reaches skyward.  Slap!  The retort echoes off the water.  A passenger asks what the odd behavior means.

“It looks as though she is signaling us to keep our distance.”

In my mind I wonder if mom isn’t just sick of the frolicking dolphins.  They aren’t a threat to the calf, but perhaps even in the world of whales there’s a time for play and a time for more serious endeavors.  With another smack she admonishes the pesky dolphins, or us: beat it!

*  *  *

The Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge is comprised of two distinct landmasses, the tops of an underwater chain of mountains.  The north islands are smaller and shorter, and a great spot to see endangered Stellar sea lions.  The south Farallones are larger and, at around 300 feet high, taller; their jagged profile is pockmarked with ominous-looking caves and archways.  These are the most frequently visited by nature lovers and have the only permanent structures: two houses built a century ago, a lighthouse and water tower, and miscellaneous sheds now used by researchers and scientists.  In between is Middle Farallon Island and to the north lies Noonday Rock, a lone hump of land that barely rises above the ocean surface.  The ecological significance of the sanctuary and refuge is still being monitored and understood, but the importance of the archipelago is unquestionable.  Thirteen species of marine mammal have been identified within the sanctuary boundaries.  The Farallones are now recognized as the largest bird rookery in the western continental United States.  Puffins, brown pelicans, cormorants, rhinoceros auklets, murres, and a full quarter of the western gull population use them to breed and raise young.  Sooty shearwaters and albatross ply the water in search of seasonal riches.  At different times of the year northern elephant seals return to molt, mate, and give birth, and both the California and Stellar sea lion use the rocky shore as well.  A growing interest in shark research has discovered the importance, and danger, of the area for great white populations.  In the autumn months these notorious carnivores hound the islands and the California coastline in search of prey, mostly juvenile sea lions and elephant seals, but not without the very occasional human mistake.

*  *  *

In the afternoon the sun finally peaks out from behind the persistent cloud cover, but the time has come for our return to San Francisco.  We turn toward the coast and stumble upon yet another pair of humpbacks closer to land.  It’s a bit unusual to find whales so far east of the islands, but our good luck is holding; we are treated to more flukes and a whiff of stinky whale breath as they exhale upwind from the boat.  What another grand day out, I think!  Seems like everywhere we turn humpbacks are going about their business; it’s definitely one of my best trips.

The highlight of the day, however, is our initial encounter.  As we first approach the Farallones someone notices a big commotion to the southwest: roiling white water, dark glistening shapes splashing about in the middle, and a crazy swirl of birds wheeling about overhead.  The captain heads in the direction of the hubbub, and my mind begins to race.  I have seen feeding humpbacks only once, on my first trip years ago, and now the signs again look very promising.  The boat arrives on scene, and sure enough we have five whales working together, corralling a huge bait ball of krill or tiny fish into a tighter and tighter knot at the surface.  In an orgy of thrashing and swimming they spend a couple of minutes doing this, and then a few disappear from view.  Moments later one, sometimes two whales together, charge out of the water with their enormous mouths open, their throats extended, ingesting massive amounts of food in a single gulp.  They crash down in a wall of foam, birds and sea lions dive in for the spoils, and then they start the whole process anew.  To our delight the whales repeat the lunge feeding again and again, totally oblivious to our twenty-five onlookers.  It’s quite a spectacle, and as lucky voyeurs we watch the impressive display for almost thirty minutes.  Hard to believe there’s so much food down there, but the humpbacks keep at it.  When three whales at once, in a perfectly timed ballet, vault out of the ocean in unison, the lucky landlubbers on board our boat whoop and holler in stunned surprise.  Our delight and admiration for these magnificent creatures fills the air.

*  *  *

There are probably places off the coast of California that are easier to reach, less demanding; places closer to land, places with more predictable water and weather.  But in my mind the Gulf of the Farallones and the homely, inhospitable islands of the same name are pure magic.  I am hopelessly hooked.  Once a summer is no longer enough; I sign up for two trips now.  The fact that each voyage is unique - that not every trip has humpbacks spy-hopping yards from the boat, blue whales eighty feet long swimming along side, multiple breaches and lunge-feeding, that sometimes you just won’t see much - no longer fazes me.  I know the annual cast of characters awaits, and I want to be there when they decide to put on a show.  Blue sharks, great white sharks, sea nettles and moon jellyfish, the bizarre ocean sunfish known as mola mola, sea turtles, dolphins, porpoise, tufted puffins and sooty shearwaters and albatross, elephant seals and Stellar sea lions and fur seals, and, of course, the great whales: they’re out there, somewhere, and sometimes you find them.  Sometimes they find you.  The possibility of, who knows what, has me coming back year after year.

And keeps me asking over and over again: “Whale watch, anyone?”

Peter Joseph Palmer
September 2004