Beyond the Golden Gate: the Kitty Kat’s whale watching adventure

Rudha-an here with a bit of a description of the weather and sea conditions. One large storm had ended the day before and another very large storm was due the next day. The sky was mostly clear but we were dealing with 15 foot swells the entire time we were out. This made photography difficult and downright impossible at times. While we did not manage any whale pics due to distance, we got plenty of other pics.

This was our whale watching boat. It was aptly named.
This was our whale watching boat.

Follow along as Lastech tells you about our day.

We’d kept reasonably low expectations about this sea-borne adventure: we’d have been quite content to enjoy half a day on the ocean and get a close look at the Farallon islands (or Farallones). We had done a bit of research before the trip and listened carefully to the instruction given by the SF Whale Watching Tour crew both in person and on their web page. That said, I still wished I had worn a hoodie and fingerless gloves to keep my ears, neck and hands warm while still being able to take photos, though neither of us minds a little discomfort as it helps to remain focused. And focus is needed as you scan the horizon for the telltale spray from a whale breaking the surface, or flocks of birds partaking in a feeding session.

A quick note about the photos. With the exception of the boat pic above, the only changes made were to level out the photos and a bit of cropping. No contrast or color changes were made.

As we passed through the Golden Gate Strait, we passed the Point Bonita Lighthouse
As we passed through the Golden Gate Strait, we passed the Point Bonita Lighthouse
The very top of Mt. Tamalpais can be seen above the fog. The coastal cliffs can be seen below the fog. What looks like dark rolling hills in the distance isn't hills. It's 15' ocean swells.
The very top of Mt. Tamalpais can be seen above the fog. The coastal cliffs can be seen below the fog. What looks like dark rolling hills in the distance isn’t hills. It’s 15′ ocean swells.
This fishing boat was probably out checking on crab traps. We're having a great  Dungeness season.
This fishing boat was probably out checking on crab pots. We’re having a great Dungeness season.

Shortly after the vessel, aptly named the “Kitty Kat”, cleared the Golden Gate bridge, we caught sight of a few porpoises also heading out to sea. The narration from Captain Joe, his first mate Roy and their marine biologist Heather was more than just informative, it was interesting, weaving bits of natural history with local lore about San Francisco in whaling days, the biology and behavior of marine life. Heather’s specialty being the study of plastics in marine ecosystems, we learned about the “plastisphere” and its impact on aquatic life at the microscopic level and beyond.

Heather, talking about sea biology. She was very interesting.
Heather, talking about sea biology.
Heather brought samples with her. This was baleen from a gray whale
Heather brought samples with her. This was baleen from a gray whale

On the approach to the Farallons, we very much appreciated the crew’s respect for marine life, as the Captain slowed the engine and stopped using loudspeakers to avoid disturbing birds and other animals. From the power of the waves crashing all around the islands, to the pelicans backlit by the sun diving for fish, we were feeling both reverence and a desire to learn and discover more.

The Farallons in the distance.
The Farallons in the distance.
This picture shows the swells. I tried to focus on the land, but the camera focused on the huge swell in front of it in stead.
This picture shows the swells. I tried to focus on the land, but the camera focused on the huge swell in front of it instead.
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Maintop Island with the Great West Arch visible on the right
Of all the islands, only the most South East island has inhabitants. Scientists live there and do research. Otherwise, it's closed to visitors.
Of all the islands, only the most South East island has inhabitants. Scientists live there and do research. Otherwise, it’s closed to visitors. The trail  to the lighthouse is visible zigzagging up the steep hill behind the housing. Those trees visible to the right of each building are the only trees on the islands. They were planted by the inhabitants ages ago.
The Farallon light. It's now used an outpost for counting birds.
The Farallon light. It’s now used an outpost for counting birds.
These islands contain the largest seabird nesting colony South of Alaska.
These islands contain the largest seabird nesting colony South of Alaska.
Cormorants
Cormorants
Cormorants and gulls
Cormorants and gulls
With no natural harbor, this crane is the only way on or off the island. It's used to pick up a small launch from the water or set one down in the water.
With no natural harbor, this crane is the only way on or off the island. It’s used to pick up a small launch from the water or set one down in the water.
The white building on top is used by researchers for counting birds, mammals and other sea life.
The white building on top is used by researchers for counting birds, mammals and other sea life.
Common murres
Common murres

When it was finally time to go back, I dozed off, half dreaming about the Galapagos island scenes from “master and commander”, until people shuffling and calling excitedly made me realize someone had seen something. The Captain steered towards what was soon confirmed as two gray whales coming up for air, keeping a respectful distance of perhaps an 1/8 of a mile, matching their speed. For a few miles, we paralleled them, catching a glimpse of them as they skimmed the surface. Heather estimated them to be approximately 45 to 50 feet in length, though these whales’ age is very difficult to gauge, given their absence of teeth.

The next storm was just beginning to show on the horizon
The next storm was just beginning to show on the horizon
A feeding frenzy of birds is usually a good sign of whales. They take advantage of any food sources stirred up by the whales passing through.
A feeding frenzy of birds is usually a good sign of whales. They take advantage of any food sources stirred up by the whales passing through.

Then, further on along the horizon, someone spotted a pod of them, with multiple plumes of spray. Even at our low speed, the vessel moved too much to take any good pictures at that distance, and people were naturally crowding the side where the whales could be observed.

But again, this didn’t matter to us: this was whale watching the old fashioned way without spotter planes or any other form of gadgetry. It takes patience and perhaps some Dramamine, and the Captain’s thirty years of experience to end up making your world this much bigger and wider.

Saying farewell to the open sea at the end of a wonderful day
Saying farewell to the open sea at the end of a wonderful day

Rudha-an here again. Should you ever decide to take a whale watching tour or any boat tour on the open sea, listen to the captain. If you are prone to motion sickness, take the dramamine BEFORE you go. Wear proper shoes. One gal wore high heeled boots. She spent her time inside the cabin. If you do get sick, don’t hide inside or close your eyes. Stay on deck in the fresh air and keep your eyes on the horizon. We stayed on the starboard side closer to the front on purpose. Anyone puking had to do it off the back of the boat and we didn’t want to be in the middle of it. We managed quite well with no sickness on our part. The boat had its first victim ten minutes in though.

Here is another page about the Farallon Island Lighthouse and the colorful island history.


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5 Replies to “Beyond the Golden Gate: the Kitty Kat’s whale watching adventure”

  1. Sounds like a very interesting excursion. Somehow I just know if I benn there I’d have spent time with the puking people though… this lady and water…. we just don’t play well together. 😉

    1. It happens. Some people just aren’t meant to go out on the water. While I had been on boats on the bay, I had never been out on the open sea. I wasn’t sure what would happen. As it turned out, I was fine. The only reason I avoided the pukers was because I would instantly go into sympathy-puke-mode. I felt bad for them, but I didn’t want to join them at the railing. 🙂

  2. Great pictures! It sounds like it was an interesting adventure. That water looks really cold. I have never taken Dramamine on boats but I’ve found that holding a piece of ginger between my lip and gum is an excellent way of avoiding seasickness.

    1. That’s nice to know about ginger. I’ve used it for tea when I had an upset stomach. I didn’t think about seasickness. The water was cold. I was soggy a lot of the time because we caught the spray where we were sitting. I would do it all again in a heartbeat. 🙂

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