There be whales! Voyaging out to the Farallon Islands

This is the year to get out on SF Bay to get a glimpse of whales, those giants of the ocean.  In other years, the whales might have proven to be elusive  — but for some reason, science-related no doubt, there are pods and pods of them, EVERYWHERE.

A group of friends and I headed out with the San Francisco Oceanic Society on their boat, the Salty Lady. While the mainland was going to be warm (well into the 70’s by the coast and 80’s inland), we were ready with our foul-weather gear, just in case. I’d thought traveling out to the Farallon Islands would be a chillier version of snorkeling trips we’d taken in Hawaii (how on earth did I get to be this old and this naive?) but I carried my layers, wool hat, and rainproof parka.  As it turned out, the winds were icy and the ocean spray soaked us. I needed every bit of gear I brought — and next time I’ll consider also packing waterproof pants and boots.

We traveled under the Golden Gate bridge and crystal blue skies out into the open ocean.  It wasn’t long before we spotted sea lions sunning themselves on a buoy and a seagull perched above them.

Cormorants, pelicans, and other sea-happy birds fed on the surface of the ocean and raced the Salty Lady. Soon, we were out by the Farallons, craggy rocky islands which are home to countless animal species. See if you can find the camouflaged pelicans resting and sunning themselves on the cliffs.

One of the more interesting Farallon Facts was that out at the Research Station, where scientists stay and study the islands, there is only one way for humans to get on and off the rocky cliffs. By crane. The cranes are there, with baskets attached.  Scientists must stand in their shaky boats and jump into swinging baskets, which then lift them up onto the island. These researchers are a determined bunch.

The smell of the whales was in the air before we spotted their spouting.  The smell? Whale breath, we were told and I thought how it resembled my yellow lab’s, only with a salty touch. Our captain maneuvered the boat out to where there were trailing spouts all around — and suddenly WHALES. Often, we spotted them in pairs. The boat crept at a whisper and the passengers were silent, the silence punctuated only by a collective and barely audible “ahhh” and pointing fingers.  Some whales swam so close to our boat we could almost reach over the edge to touch them.  Twice, we saw a whale lift its chin out of the water and we could see its pink underbelly covered with barnacles. I wish I’d been quicker on the shutter because within seconds they had submerged again.

It didn’t take long for me to accept that sometimes you have to decide that the experience is worth more than the stress of getting the shot. At least for the time being.

The captain wanted to take us out to the continental shelf and it was there that we hit a thick marine layer.  It was the stuff of Moby Dick,  like we were at the edge of the world and would fall off into the abyss if we went just a tiny bit farther. And then . . . img_7326

BLUE WHALES.  The largest creature on earth and there they were, gliding through the ocean. I tried to get a shot — proof that we saw them — and if you look closely at the foggy, almost black and white picture of ocean, you’ll see a sliver of a Blue whale’s back under that plume. That day, their silver sheen blended with the opaqueness of the ocean’s gray.  Finally, I decided to put the camera down and just enjoy the quiet presence of these magnificent giants.

On the way back to port, I sat on a bench outside, letting the sun warm me as best it could, and gave in to sleep — the kind of sleep that has you listing to one side. I woke up long enough to see an enormous Mola Mola, or Sunfish, gliding just below the surface — its flat, yellow back shimmering.

Before long, the Salty Lady brought us back to port in the SF Bay. We were wet, windswept, and, most certainly, full of wonder.


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