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An Exuberance of Whales

By Sherry K. Bridgman
Friday December 29, 2006

It was one of those sparkling September days here in the Bay Area, blue skies and warm with little or no wind. What fog there was had melted away by the time I reached dockside where the boat the Salty Lady was moored. 

By arriving early, I could meet with the naturalist and the Captain for any last minute information. This was a trip to the Farallone Islands sponsored by the zoo where I worked at the time as the Membership Director in the 1980’s. We did four trips a year to the Farallone Islands, two to see birds in the spring and summer and whales in September and January. The Farallone waters are rich in fish and wildlife and are designated the Point Reyes Farallon Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Because it is a refuge no one is allowed on the islands. Only the Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory has limited access for bird counts and observations. 

Members started arriving well before 6 am. And by 6:10 everyone was on board. As I stepped aboard the Captain was giving the safety talk. The captain also had some rules; if you were seasick do not lock yourself in the restrooms! You must go to the back of the boat and lean over the rail if you feel nauseated. He emphasized this very strongly. 

We were ocean bound shortly thereafter for the two-and-a-half hour trip to the islands. Out through the Golden Gate, past Pt. Bonita; as we cleared the Marin coast we could see the Farallone Islands some 27 miles away and the early morning sun was making them a spectacular sight. 

We were about five miles from the islands when the Captain announced over the intercom “two whales at 2 o’clock (that would be slightly to the right, the front of the boat being at 12 o’clock). Then there was another sighting at 11 o’clock—at 4 o’clock—whales were everywhere. We were so close at times you didn’t need your binoculars. Our Zoo members were thrilled and very excited. The captain had slowed the boat to an idle, which makes the boat pitch from side to side. Then he cut off the engine completely because his fish finder was indicating whales under the boat. There were shouts from the naturalist pointing out which one’s were Blues and which were Humpbacks. 

Then I heard “man overboard” my heart sank. (Gosh, it was hard enough to get members, and now I am losing one overboard!) When I got to the other side where he’d gone overboard, two quick thinking guys and the first mate had him in tow on a long pole. The Captain was directing his safe rescue. He still was clinging to his camera and binoculars! They took him in the cabin, put him in dry clothes and wrapped him blankets to prevent hypothermia. By this time he had his voice back and he was thanking his rescuers. The temperature of the water at that time was 46 degrees. 

The upwelling of the ocean here produces myriad of krill on which the whales feed. Both the Blue and the Humpback whales are baleen feeders; they may also take other small schooling fish such as sardines and prawns. 

After three exciting hours of looking at whales, the Captain announced we were heading back to Sausalito. Most of the people found a comfortable place on the boat and fell asleep in the warm sun. 

About a mile from the Golden Gate, the Captain wanted everyone on board in the cabin immediately. The ocean seemed calm, with very little wind. I hustled everyone into the cabin as quickly as I could, and I was the last to step in and close the door. Most of the people were facing the front of the boat because it was very crowded. I turned around and looked out to sea—then I saw it. A rolling 15-foot wave coming directly at us. We were raised up and then down, somewhat like a roller coaster. Then it was over. The Captain told us it was a rogue wave, and luckily he had been radioed from another boat in the vicinity that the wave was coming our way. 

What a fabulous day of whale watching! All in all, we had seen 25 Blue whales and 28 Humpback whales. Probably counted some of them twice!