off the California coast are more mysterious than the Farallon Islands. Located
just 27 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, the collection of barely
inhabitable staccato peaks are hardly ever seen. It is only on a clear day –
if you squint really
hard – that you might be able to make them out. Otherwise, the islands are
shrouded in fog and known among locals solely as the feeding grounds for white
around the Farallones dates back to the beginning of human history. Native
Americans refused to step foot on the islands. They believed them to be haunted
and would occasionally boat out dead bodies for water burials. It was not until
the 19th-century Gold Rush days when food shortages were rampant in
San Francisco that settlers really began exploring the islands. Back then,
foragers would hunt for the eggs of common murres to include in popular dishes
such as Hangtown fry, a Californian omelette-style meal made of eggs, bacon and
military put a radar station on the Farallones during World War II and assigned
a few people to live out there. After the war, the islands became a protected wildlife
refuge, and today only scientific researchers are allowed on land. Tourists are
relegated to boat tours – which is why I was standing on the deck of the Kitty
Kat on a sunny Sunday morning.
for a trip to the Galapagos of the west!” bellowed Captain Joe Nazar of San Francisco Whale Tours.
This moniker is well suited to the islands. In addition to white sharks, the
Gulf of the Farallones has some of the most nutrient-rich waters in the
northern hemisphere, making it a perfect place to go whale watching.
A bumpy journey
47 other camera-ready wildlife seekers headed out of the harbour. The waters were
clear and calm as we motored pass Alcatraz
and under the Golden Gate Bridge. Pretty soon though, things started getting a
“The Gulf of the Farallones is a
very challenging body of water,” said Mary Jane Schramm, spokesperson for the
Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. “Those intrepid enough to
venture outside the Golden Gate will find a whole other wild world out there.”
explained that San Francisco sits astride the California Current, which moves
south along the coast and causes upwelling – water movement that brings
nutrients from the bottom of the ocean to the top. Strong winds run nearly
parallel to the current, creating even more turbulence. This movement is
beneficial to wildlife because, Schramm explained, “it stirs up the ocean.
That’s why we are a destination feeding area for everything: blue whales, grey
whales, humpback whales, seals, birds, you name it.”
Back on the
boat, I was getting the distinct impression that my fellow passengers were feeling
a little “stirred up” too. The one-way trip to the islands takes more than two
hours; by 90 minutes in, more than half of my shipmates had lost their
enough, cameras were being whipped around in the direction of the peaks that
were jutting out of the water. “Ok, folks, keep your eyes out for spouts. There
should be a lot of whales out today,” Nazar announced. None of us blinked for
what seemed like an eternity. As I felt my eyes starting to dry out, I heard a
yell from the other side of the boat and turned around just in time to see a
spout rise into the air.
“That is a
grey whale,” Kim Workman, the naturalist accompanying the boaat, beamed. We were
all mesmerised. The whale rose about 5ft above the water, showing a sliver of
its back and a cluster of cream coloured barnacles, and then dove back down. Before
long, we saw another spout, this time a humpback, as it came up for air.
As our ship
drew closer to the islands, we could see lunar landmasses with no vegetation
and rocky brown soil. We also spotted a scientist standing on a cliff, waiting
to get picked up by a research boat via crane (there are no docks or beaches on
the islands). It was as though we were looking at another planet.
motored in the relatively calm waters near the islands. We saw flocks of birds and
then another spout, this one sandwiched between our boat and the islands and
much larger than any we had seen. The flat, black-looking skin of the whale
peaked above the water for just a few seconds before submerging again. “Oh my
goodness, folks, that is a blue whale!” Workman yelled from the deck. Nazar
chimed in too: “Ladies and gentleman, this is spectacular. We call this a
trifecta – seeing three different types of whales in one day.”
islands, the group was abuzz with excitement. As the Farallon Islands once
again disappeared from view and San Francisco became clearer, I think all of us
– even those now on empty stomachs – felt it was a special day.
watching is a near year-round activity in the Farallones. December through May
is the best time to see the migration of grey whales, though May through
November is a great time to see humpbacks, blue whales, 12 species of birds and
up to 23 species of marine mammals.
There are a
few companies that offer whale-watching tours, including San Francisco Whale Tours and
the Oceanic Society.
Dress warmly with trousers, a sweatshirt and a jacket. Regardless of the time
of year, it can get chilly on the water.