Friday, June 1, 2012

'Tis the Season

No, not the Holiday Season; that's still a few months away. It's whale watching season, my fellow ocean-loving mammals, so the time is right to start planning an excursion to the Farallon Islands! Read on and whet your appetite with the following notes from a superb voyage a few years back.

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Oceanic Society Farallon Islands Trip
Sunday 09.14.2008

The Boat
Salty Lady: a good stable boat with a knowledgeable, wildlife-loving captain and crew.

The Weather
Calm, foggy and overcast for most of the day. At times almost no wind. Some beautiful, rolling swells and many vast areas of pure, still, glassy water. Great weather for an excursion to the Farallones.

The Animal Sightings
Harbor porpoise – lots
Besides the seal and the sea lion, usually the first marine mammal spotted outside the Golden Gate. A smaller, shy cetacean that swims close to shore and is seen in fleeting glances as it breaks the water’s surface. Dark brown-charcoal black: very graceful, very quick and quiet.

Dall’s porpoise – 12 to 15
We came upon two small pods, each one with 6 or so individuals. One group was enticed into a bow ride, so we got to hang over the front rail of the boat and watch them zip swiftly back and forth and surface and leap from the clear water three feet below our gaze. Extremely fast, agile and powerful swimmers: always a delight to see, especially when they co-operate with a playful bow ride.

Risso’s dolphin – 25 or so
Big dolphins, 10-12 feet in length, with a tall, straight dorsal fin and a blunt, rounded head, swimming slowly together in a large, extended pod at the surface. In the silence surrounding our boat we could hear their quick, sharp, exhale blows: a kind of dreamy, ricochet explosion of air as they surfaced, over and over. In a way they reminded me of killer whales, but smaller and of course a different color: like a pack of dogs on the hunt. I had seen only one lone Risso’s before, a fleeting glance, so this was a very cool encounter.

Humpback whale – 7
The most numerous and most acrobatic of the large baleen whales in the Gulf of the Farallones. Didn’t see the sheer numbers that other trips have recently, but we were treated to some beautiful, slow motion fluke shots as the whales sounded and got an all-too potent whiff of some nasty-ass whale breath.

Blue whale – 1
The largest creature to ever roam the Earth. A rare sighting, as in recent years they seem to be favoring other areas of California for their summertime feeding, and only the second individual seen by the captain this season. Hard to imagine their immense size by just seeing what appears above the water, but if this one were right next to our boat it probably would have dwarfed it by 20 feet. And they are, in the right light, a pale, silvery blue. I have not seen a blue whale out there since around 2003.

Fin whale – 1
The second largest creature in the world. An extremely rare sighting (especially right after the blue whale), the only time this season and the first one I have ever seen. A big whale: dark brown-charcoal in color, with a pronounced, tall, slightly sickle-shaped dorsal fin. An outstanding encounter, one that sent our Oceanic Society naturalist into a volley of obviously excited “oohs” and “ahs”.

California sea lion – lots
The noisy, acrobatic and gregarious poster child of the California coast. Barking, swimming, flipping, vaulting in and out of the water, you find them in the bay, in the open water, and huddled in a mass of brown blubber on the rocky shore of the Farallon Islands. Inquisitive and intelligent, they never fail to put on some kind of a show doing what they just, naturally, do.

Fur seal – 2
Like the brown pelican an environmental success story, as populations seem to be on the rebound. Found both of them floating on their backs, relaxing and warming up with their fins pointed skyward. Are they seals or sea lions?

Blue shark – 1
Very brief look at the tail and dorsal fin before it disappeared. Would love to get a good, sustained look at one (or even better, a bunch of them) in the water from the boat.

Moon jellyfish – lots
Drifting by in opalescent jellyfish mode: Look, ma…no hands!

Sea nettle – several
Burnt orange bodies with tentacles stretched out below.

Common murre – lots
Gray and white, small and low to the water: a comical, noisy, squawking swimmer and an abundant sight at the Farallones. Sometimes alone and sometimes found in large mats of adults and juveniles. Great swimmers and divers.

Cassin’s auklet – lots
Very small, cute, dark gray bird, at times seemingly better suited to swimming underwater than to flying. Usually so stuffed full of fish it can barely take flight, opting instead to just madly flap across the water or dive to get out of the way.

Brown pelican – lots
Doesn’t everyone love pelicans? Once so decimated by DDT that they are a miracle to see in such healthy numbers. So awkward on land, but such beautiful flyers; they use the sea level air currents to soar effortlessly inches above the water. On this trip we had one smart bird ride the boat’s air currents from behind. The bird repeated the performance several times, drafting the Salty Lady from the stern and right up the side of the boat, allowing us a charming and extraordinary close up view of a pelican in flight.

Double-crested cormorant – lots
Iconic, long-necked, black aquatic bird. Great divers and fishermen, they form beautiful vee-shaped formations, low on the surface, as they travel from the mainland out to sea and back.

Western grebe – several
Graceful, elegant slender-necked, white and light gray plumed aquatic birds. Very, very pretty.

Red phalarope – lots
Diminutive and fragile-looking birds with beautiful striped plumage and a slender neck, they seem too delicate to be out here in the wild and wonderful Pacific Ocean.

Tufted puffin – 2
Summed up perfectly by our naturalist when we spotted one bobbing comically on the water: people travel a long, long way to see this bird. Unfazed by the boatload of landlubbers as we circled round to get a very good look at the substantial, bright orange beak and tufted head feathers.

Sooty shearwater – several
Gull-like birds with handsome, charcoal-gray plumage: beautiful and graceful flyers, they love to soar just above the water’s surface.

Black-footed albatross – several
There was much excitement on board when we spotted these, one of the avid bird watchers “must see”. There are several species of albatross, but all are known for their exceedingly graceful flight, for their huge wingspan, and for their long distance travel. Oh, how I wish I could fly like the albatross.

The Verdict
A rock solid trip, especially since we had so many first time voyagers on board the Salty Lady. As someone who has been out more than two dozen times, the only thing I know for sure is that every trip is unique. This one was both a classic voyage (the humpbacks, the frolicking sea lions, the Dall’s porpoise) and a very special one (the smart, hitchhiking pelican, the bow-riding, the puffins, the albatross, the big pod of Risso’s, and the surprising blue and fin whales). The friendly weather kept any serious seasickness at bay. We encountered six species of cetacean, from one of the smallest to the two largest. Most of the humpbacks were sighted east of the Farallones, and although we didn’t get any feeding or breaching or close up visits I think everyone, especially with the blue and fin whale thrown in to boot, was very happy with the day’s outcome.

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Shoot me a line if you want to be kept in the loop, and I'll let you know when we choose the date for the trip this year. Two trips this year, that is: I've decided to take one from Moss Landing as well. Never before been out on Monterey Bay, but I recently spoke with the captain at Sanctuary Cruises, a small boat operation that sounds just right: 5 hours at sea, 24 people max, a 13 year history of marine biologist and owner led trips, and from what I can tell good endorsements.

So come on now...It's June 1, 2012. The time is now, and the time is a-wasting.

Thar she blows, matey!
Peter J. Palmer