Saturday, June 01, 2013

Thanks for the Memories

Verne and Cynthia Bryant

A love letter of appreciation from Verne Bryant to all the wonderful people who shared the whales and the experience of 8 years aboard SF Bay Whale Watching. Verne retired from the business on May 31, 2013:
May 29, 2013
Dear friends, associates, colleagues, guests, and lovers of whales in nature,

It was about eight years ago, when I was no longer a professor, that I was invited on a whale watching excursion to the Farallon Islands. I was most interested in not becoming seasick, and if I saw a whale it would be alright.

We had been out about four hours and I was avoiding seasickness by the narrowest of margins. I am sure you recall that I am rather short.  From the starboard side of the vessel I heard an extraordinary roar of what sounded like approval.

Everyone rushed to that side, and I was too late and too short to see anything over the backs of the taller people. (If you read this and you are short, squeeze as politely as you can to the front of everybody and kneel or squat at the rail)  I did not do this. I stood behind this solid human wall and saw nothing.

I went to the port side, thinking I would find a whale of my own.  Staring out at the sea, I soon forgot about whales and started to dream about the size of the ocean and my existence in the universe.

The whale swam under the boat. It must have gone down very deeply.  A huge head began to rise out of the water. I started looking down at it, but soon I was looking up.  I found myself staring into the largest, kindest most loving eye I had ever seen. I did not know if it was going to fall over on the boat and crush us or if it was going to leave me in peace.

The humpback whale appeared to stare lovingly into my eye while going straight up and coming back straight down. It was if it had made an escape tunnel and went right back down into it.

So I bought SF Bay Whale Watching.  I later learned it was started by Sandra Cannon using the skills and vessel of Captain Joe Nazar.

I have taken many trips out to see the whales. I love and respect them, but I found you collectively far more interesting and compelling.  While I appreciate whales, my experience with you, whale watchers, convince me that you are the most interesting and considerate mammals on this planet and I wish all humans were like whale watchers. Thank you very much.

Verne Bryant

Photos and blog by Kathleen Jacques (With everlasting gratitude to my friend Verne!)

Monday, May 13, 2013

Springtime Abundance - Breeding Seabirds, Whales, Dolphins, Sea Lions, Jelly Fish!

Spring Highlights 
Submitted by SFBWW Senior 
Naturalist Carol Keiper
Photographs by Keith Baty

"The Saturday trip started out relatively calm but very low visibility and we could not see any part of the Golden Gate Bridge as we headed out to our Pacific Ocean. We had very    thick fog with visibility less than one mile and it was cool with 5kts of wind and swells 2-3ft. We went up along the coast to Duxbury Reef and headed west to the Farallones and soon after we headed west we had a very brief sighting of one Gray whale and we were not able to see it again because of the fog."

"About 10:00 the weather changed dramatically and the fog disappeared! We were all very pleased that we were able to see 7-10 miles with calm seas and very little wind as we headed out to the Farallon Islands. When we arrived at Southeast Farallon Islands (SEFI) we were treated to thousands of seabirds that included Western gulls, Pigeon guillemots fluttering on the water and we were able to see the beautiful red feet!  This is the time of the year seabirds are breeding, laying their eggs and getting ready to raise their chicks.  Thousands of Common murres were all over the island slopes and rocks, and it was so evident that they are the most colonial of all the seabirds. We also saw some Cassin’s auklets and Rhinocerous auklets and a few Phalaropes." 

"Along the rocky shorelines we were able to see the Harbor seals, California sea lions, and a few Steller sea lions. Soon after we arrived at SEFI we saw a blow and we all got excited when we started to see the seasonal resident Gray whale milling around the south side of SEFI. We had great views of its blows, back, and flukes. Because ocean conditions were calm and gorgeous we headed much further west out to the edge of the continental shelf  and slope and into deeper water in search of other whales such as Humpback and Blue whales, dolphins and Dall’s porpoises. These marine mammals are often seen along the edge of the continental shelf and slope in deeper water."

"We had excellent visibility and continued searching and on our way back to San Francisco about half way back we did have a very brief sighting of a Humpback whale. A few of our participants on the starboard side saw the blows, back, and flukes and we stopped and spent some time searching so others could also see this whale but we did not have another sighting. Although we all did not see it we were pleased that we knew it was in the area. Other seabirds we saw were Double-crested, Brandt’s and Pelagic cormorants and a few brown jellies, the northern sea nettle (Chrysaora melanaster), also called a brown jellyfish."

Narrative by SFBWW Senior Naturalist Carol Keiper. Photos by passenger Keith Baty. Blog by Kathleen Jacques.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Our" Northern Gannet Returns / "Resident" Gray Whales Stick Around

Northern Gannet - Farallon Islands - September 23, 2012
Photo by David Diller

The big news this Summer and early Fall, along with sightings of multiple Blue Whales, has been the sight of a Northern Gannet at the Farralones (see blog dated July 1, 2012). And this latest photo of the global traveler is also one of the best bird photos of the year. I can tell you from experience, spotting one particular bird high on a rocky, uneven, mottled rock face is hard enough, but getting one to pose like a runway model is spectacular.  Bravo to photographer David Diller!

Brown Pelicans file photo by Kathleen Jacques
Highlights of another recent trip led by naturalist Carol Keiper: "Our Pacific Ocean adventure started with excellent visibility and calm seas as we headed out under the Golden Gate Bridge and cruised along the coast. We had great views of our spectacular coastline due to the excellent visibility, and soon spotted some Harbor porpoises and a few Harbor seals resting on the rocky shoreline along with some Brown Pelicans flying close to the ocean surface." 
Brown Pelican file photo by Kathleen Jacques
"We also sighted seasonal migrants from the Southern Hemisphere: the Sooty shearwaters from New Zealand, Tasmania, and Chile, and the Pink-footed shearwaters from Chile. The Sooty shearwaters are named for their sooty-brown coloration and the ability to shear the top of the water. The Pink-footed shearwaters have pink feet (hard to see!) but their distinctive difference from the sooty shearwaters is their white belly and mottled underwings and pale bill. Both of these shearwaters do slope-soaring and take advantage of the patterns of the wind and waves and flap, flap, flap, glide."

Sea Lions file photo by Kathleen Jacques
"Once in sight of the Farallon Island's jagged rocks and arches and we were greeted by barking male California sea lions. We were able to see these amazing rock climbers along with resting Steller sea lions and Harbor seals. Although we did not have any sightings of Great white sharks, we knew they were in the area because shark season at the Farallones is from September through November.  As we made our way around Saddle Rock we had the great pleasure and privilege of seeing some blows and discovered these blows were from the seasonal resident juvenile/sub-adult Gray whales. We saw a total of four and were able to stay 100yds from one of them as it was milling about searching and hopefully finding prey in the mud, sand or water column.  Their prey may be mysiid shrimp or krill located in mid-water, or amphipods and other organisms in the sandy/muddy bottom. Their main feeding behavior is benthic suction feeding and they are like a giant vacuum cleaner feasting on these organisms."

Humpback Whales file photo by Kathleen Jacques
"Also in this same area as the Gray whales were about 100 Cassin’s auklets, cute seabirds about the same size as tennis balls, and they were also milling and surface diving. Other seabirds species sighted were Double-crested, Brandt’s, and Pelagic cormorants, and Forster’s terns as we headed into San Francisco Bay."

Shark Tracking Device at the Farallones
photo by Naturalist Renata Martin
Naturalist Renata Martin photographed something new to all of us, a tracking device looking for White Sharks during shark season at the Farralones (generally August through October):  "What an amazing day in the Gulf of the Farallones! We started off with greetings from a humpback whale just outside the Golden Gate Bridge...unbelievable."

Diving Humpback Whale file photo by Kathleen Jacques
"A few loud spouts brought us straight to the tail of a small humpback as she dove and resurfaced at Land's End. Tearing ourselves away, we headed out towards the islands along the unusually smooth ocean surface, accompanied by pelicans, murres, grebes and gulls. As we neared Southeast Farallon Island, auklets skittered out of our way and a couple of tiny warblers followed us -- and rested on our boat. When we got to Fisherman's Bay on the eastern side of the island, scattered flocks of cormorants were perched on the steep rocky face of Sugar Loaf Rock, their solid black bodies standing out against the white, guano-covered surface."

Farallon Islands photo by Naturalist Renata Martin
"While we traveled around the island, we came upon a gray whale in Mirounga Bay on the south side, and two more that surfaced over and over again just around the corner. We also came upon a radio-controlled white shark tracking device -- it looked like a science fair project, a surfboard with solar panels on top, and a flag with a lightbulb coming up in the center. Anxious to get out to the continental shelf, we raced out to the 2-mile drop-off and watched a beautiful humpback whale breaching and flippering [slapping it's pectoral flipper]! Porpoises guided us back to shore, and the sun broke through the high fog as we floated back into the bay."

Farallon Islands file photo by Kathleen Jacques
Another recent trip led by Carol Keiper had unusually calm sea conditions: "We were very fortunate and grateful to be out on the Pacific Ocean and experiencing our adventure in calm sea conditions, no swells, very little wind and although it was cloudy, we had good visibility. When we were just a few miles from the Farallon Islands we had a very brief sighting of two humpback whales that only surfaced once and was only seen by a few guests. We slowed down and stayed in the area 100 yds from where they were sighted and never saw them again. They must have been on a mission to travel somewhere to find food. When we arrived at Southeast Farallones our good visibility allowed us to experience this habitat that is a seabird and marine mammal paradise."

Mixed group of Cormorants and Gulls file photo by Kathleen Jacques
"Although the seabird breeding season has ended and most seabirds have left their nest site we were able to see a few species on the island that included Pelagic and Brandt’s cormorants and Western gulls and several really good sightings of the beautiful Tufted puffins on the surface of the ocean close to our vessel! Our guests were very happy about this! We also heard the loud barking of the male California sea lions and we could see this species along with the Harbor seals, Steller sea lions, and Northern fur seals rest and climbing on the rocks. Just as we were cruising around to the south side of the islands we sighted the blows, backs, and flukes of several juvenile and sub-adult Gray whales that have been seasonal residents there spending their summer feeding in these food rich waters near the Farallones!"

One of the best photos we've ever seen of a breaching Humpback Whale
taken a couple of years ago by passenger Regynn Lesser
"Next we ventured further offshore beyond the continental shelf edge and into much deeper water searching for other species of whales and to our surprise, the Humpback and Blue whales have left this area and hopefully found a biological hotspot so they could continue feeding during this important feeding season. There must have been a change in the oceanography and location of their prey. Other species of seabirds sighted were the Western gulls, Heermann’s gulls, Western grebes, Brown pelicans, Common murres, Cassin’s auklets, Pigeon guillemots, and Sooty and Pink-footed shearwaters, species that migrate from the Southern hemisphere to our food-rich waters. On our return trip, about half way back, we were treated to some spectacular weather – beautiful sunny, calm conditions and incredible visibility as we approached the Golden Gate Bridge!

Text and photos as attributed. Blog by Kathleen Jacques.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Blue Whales Dine at the Krill Cafeteria

Blue Whale photo by SFBWW naturalist Carol Keiper

It's hard to wrap your mind around the fact that the Blue Whale, the largest animal that has EVER roamed the planet (up to 100 feet, 400,000 pounds; larger than the largest dinosaur!) feeds almost exclusively on one of the smallest food sources - krill. Krill, that tiny crustacean - the dried variety of which can be found in a shaker of packaged turtle food - nourishes these giants (and your pet turtle Freddy, although Freddy doesn't need six tons of krill a day to fill up).  But there they were - Blue Whales - spotted near the Farallon Islands on a recent SFBay Whale Watching trip. Naturalist Carol Keiper narrates the story below.

Fog shrouded Golden Gate Bridge file photo by Kathleen Jacques

Brown Pelicans file photo by Kathleen Jacques

“As we headed out under the Golden Gate Bridge the fog was so thick we could barely see the bridge, however we could see some plunge-diving Brown Pelicans being closely followed by some Heermann’s Gulls that were hoping to get some of the fish being caught by the pelicans.“

Blue Whale photo by SFBWW naturalist Carol Keiper

“We also had a few harbor porpoise sightings and as we headed further offshore we left the fog behind and had good visibility that allowed us to see a group of fishing vessels fishing for salmon and most amazing, we started to see the very large blows and very large backs of the highly endangered Blue Whales that were most likely feeding on krill among the fishing vessels!” 

Blue Whale photo by SFBWW naturalist Carol Keiper

“Salmon also feed on krill, which is an ‘ecological powerhouse’ and ‘keystone species’. This was truly a ‘biological hotspot’!  We were in the company of these majestic whales for almost a half hour in idle (not traveling), when one of the Blue Whales started heading straight for our boat and surfaced less than 100 feet from us and then disappeared. This literally took our breath away!  It’s amazing how these whales know where to travel to take advantage of huge patches of tons of krill throughout this biological hotspot.” 

Foggy Farallones file photo by Kathleen Jacques

Tufted Puffin file photo by Kathleen Jacques

“We then headed to the Farallon Islands and the weather made an abrupt change: fog and wind. When we arrived at the islands we were able to see thousands of Common Murres, a few Tufted Puffins, Rinocerous Auklets, Cassin’s Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots, a few Sooty Shearwaters (that migrate from the Southern Hemisphere), and a juvenile Brown Booby, a rare visitor from Mexico and Baja!” 

California Sea Lions at the Farallones file photo by Kathleen Jacques
Blue Whale photo by SFBWW naturalist Carol Keiper

“We also saw and heard the California Sea Lions (males were barking), Steller Sea Lions, and some Harbor Seals. Other seabird species we sighted on this trip were Western Gulls, Western Grebes, Brandt’s, Double-crested, and Pelagic Cormorants, and Surf Scooters. Our grand finale as we headed back was to see more Blue Whales, and closer to the Golden Gate Bridge we saw 15-20 pairs of recently fledged Common Murre chicks with their dads getting some feeding training at sea!”

Photos by Carol Keiper and Kathleen Jacques. Narration by Carol Keiper. Blog by Kathleen Jacques.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Northern Gannet Spotted at Farralon Islands!

Photo by SFBay Whale Watching passenger Larry Sansone
A couple of months ago the American Birding Association issued a rare bird alert announcing the sighting of an adult Northern Gannet on South East Farallon Island, 27 miles offshore from San Francisco: "The Gannet is not only the first for California, but the first for the Pacific, making it all the more remarkable."  Shortly afterwards, the scientists from PRBO Conservation Science working at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge issued a remarkable "Los Farallones" blog entry titled: 
"Northern Gannet at SEFI - Evidence of Climate Change?". Check it out and the sensational photos of the Northern Gannet by Sophie Webb at

Here's what the PRBO scientists had to say about this lucky sighting: "The Farallon Islands are known for attracting rare and unusual vagrants. A Northern Gannet was first spotted in Fisherman's Bay on April 25th. This represents not only the first island record and first California record for this species, it is actually the first known record for the entire Pacific Ocean. An exceedingly rare sighting."

"The Northern Gannet is typically only found in the north Atlantic Ocean. But what is it doing at the Farallones? It has no business being here. How did it get to the Farallones? " 

"The likely answer is that it came across through the now open water of the Northwest Passage. Climate warming has resulted in a reduction in pack ice and an increase in open water all the way across the top of the continent.  This bird probably followed that water and ended up in the wrong ocean. In fact, just last summer, there were two individual Northern Gannets reported in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska."

"That was a first for that region and a clear sign that a warming planet is opening up new avenues for seabird dispersal. Maybe this is another case like the one in the Arctic or maybe it is even the same bird, having migrated down the West Coast for the winter and finally stopping for a rest in a sheltered cove near our little island. We can't know for sure, but we do know that a warming planet and more open water will allow for more mixing of marine species between the Atlantic and the Pacific."

Photo by Larry Sansone
Birders can always be found on SFBay Whale Watching tours (clues: pricey binoculars held by special harness-type straps; cameras with 200mm lenses; a tad ho-hum about whales...), but on Sunday, June 24, 2012, the birders ruled.  They came, they saw, they added a first to their record books.  

SFBay Whale Watching's naturalist, Ghislaine Alix Loree, tells the story: "Out on another adventure to the Farallon Islands and beyond. This time I was in the company of about 17 bird watchers who were on a mission to find a bird called the Northern Gannet. This bird was first spotted and documented in April 2012 at the Farallones and has never been seen in CA previously."

"This shocked the bird watching community because this particular bird should not be there. Some people attribute this to climate change. The melting ice has opened up waterways which perhaps the bird has followed by accident. We knew the odds were stacked against us, but half the fun is the hunt."

"The day itself was unusually warm and clear with Humpback Whales all around us. This didn't seem to matter to the birders, their sights were set high in the sky. We turned a corner which exposed a colony of nesting Common Murres on the cliff side that seemed to be in the millions! Suddenly someone shouted "there it is". I surely thought they must be talking about something else."

"The excitement became feverish as everyone was looking through binoculars, trying to get directions to locate the elusive bird. There it was, a gleaming white, handsome bird, nestled amongst the many Murres. Success! Even with the breaching Humpbacks all around us, the real star of the show was the Gannet! Everyone on board felt very lucky with a deep feeling of satisfaction. Hopefully this ambassador bird will remind us to try and make important changes in our own lives that can help reduce the effects of climate change, helping to make it a better place for all the animals on this Earth including ourselves! It's always a surprising adventure when you're having fun at the Farallons!"

Many thanks to passenger, birder and photographer Larry Sansone ("Attached please find 2 images of the Northern Gannet from our trip to the Farallones yesterday (24 June). Everyone had a great time, especially me! Thank you! Larry Sansone.")  

Photos by Larry Sansone. Blog by Kathleen Jacques.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Humpbacks Are Back

Photo by Naturalist  Ghislaine Alix Loree
After spending the winter in tropical waters, Humpback Whales migrate north to feed in food-rich northern seas. We miss them when they're south, so spotting the first Humpback in the spring is a delight. Humpback Whales are a favorite of many whale watchers, probably due to the show they put on - deep-dive flukes displays, flipper-slapping the surface ("whap!"), and, most thrilling - breaching (with what seems like bravado and joyful playfulness, although scientists have yet to figure out why they do these things).

Photo by Naturalist  Ghislaine Alix Loree

Photo by Naturalist  Ghislaine Alix Loree

SFBay Whale Watching naturalist Ghislaine Alix Loree, who also took these images, narrates a recent trip:

 "On our way out to the Farallon Islands, we enjoyed the lounging Harbor Seals and the many birds like Cormorants, Western Grebes and Gulls. Once we got to the Islands, we encountered a Gray Whale that we enjoyed watching for a while. 

The Islands and the surrounding water were teaming with birds like Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots, Tufted Puffins and lots of Surf Scooters. A small pod of Dall's porpoises followed underneath our boat for a minute or two. Then we noticed far off in the distance a Whale that seemed to be breaching over and over again." 

Photo by Naturalist  Ghislaine Alix Loree

"The boat took off in that direction to get a better look. What followed was a show of all shows. It was two Humpback Whales and one seemed to be "showing off" to the other. The one Whale would roll on its back and do what seemed like the backstroke, slapping it's enormous flippers down on the surface. After about a minute of that, the Whale would dive down with a spectacular tail flip and soon come bursting out of the water with a spectacular breach! 

This was repeated over and over again to the delight of everyone. As we all thought that it couldn't get much better, we were silenced by the magical sound of Whale song! It didn't last long but we all knew that we just experienced something really special. To have such a unique experience is something that I will never forget!...Ghislaine Alix Loree"

Photos and narration by Ghislaine Alix Loree. Blog by Kathleen Jacques.

Humback Whales "fingerprints" - one-of-a-kind identifying flukes.
File photos by Kathleen Jacques.