A wild world off California's coast

Just beyond San Francisco, the mysterious Farallon Islands are a collection of inhospitable rocky peaks where nutrient-rich waters make it a perfect place for whale watching.

Few places 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 sharks.

Mystery 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 oysters.

The US 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.

“All aboard 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
Myself and 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 little wavy.

 “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.”

Schramm 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 breakfasts.

Land, ahoy
Soon 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.

Our boat 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.”

Leaving the 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.

Whale 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.