Monday, August 9, 2010

A Whale of a Day

“This trip had more whales than we saw in Alaska.”

“We didn’t see anything like this in Hawaii.”

“I had no idea what to expect – what a day!”

Listening to my fellow passengers’ remarks, I realized that though I’ve seen many whales in Alaska, Hawaii and elsewhere, and though after almost 28 years of whale watching I did know what to expect – or at least hope for – even a rave review will not fully do justice to the Oceanic Society’s nature trip Sunday to the Farallon Islands.

Here, straight from the report of naturalist Izzy Szczepaniak, is the tally:

• Seabirds: Western gull, brown pelican, Brandt's cormorant, double-crested cormorant, red-necked phalarope, common murre, sooty shearwater, pink-footed shearwater, pigeon guillemot, Heermann's gull.

• Pinnipeds: California sea lions, northern fur seals, Steller sea lion, harbor seal, elephant seal.

• Cetaceans: One minke whale, three blue whales, two humpback whales, one gray whale, one orca.

Hey, I’m a big fan of seabirds and pinnipeds, but I’m out on the day-long trip to see whales. (For info on these trips, see And oh the whales we saw!

After lunch on our boat, the Salty Lady, in the relatively quiet waters of the mystical Farallon Islands, we headed out in search of more whales. We’d already watched blue whales feeding, had several good looks at the broad backs of the largest animals (up to 80-90 feet long, weighing more than a ton and a half per foot) ever to live on Earth. We’d caught a fleeting glimpse of a fleeing minke, a small baleen whale (a mere 30 feet long) that shows little and tells even less. And we had hung around a small humpback long enough to hear several blows and watch a few shallow dives. We’d even come upon a gray whale (said to be the most primitive of whale species) feeding close to the Farallons.

So we’re riding along on the back of the boat, many of us half dozing, cold and a bit damp (more on this later), when with no warning whatsoever, no tell-tale blow to indicate that a whale was nearby, a massive adult humpback, weighing about 40 tons, leaps fully out of the water and crashes back into the sea. Everyone screamed – even those who turned in time to see only the great splash. Izzy, who had been in the front of the boat, raced to the back, crying “Did you see that? Did you SEE that?”

Captain Jared slowed the boat. We waited. We watched. “This humpback’s heart is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle,” said Izzy. “The arteries are big enough to walk through -- if we stooped a little.” Then the whale breached again – and again and again! We were not tired of watching the breaching whale (how could we be?) but next the whale showed us every trick in a humpback’s bag: spyhopping (sticking its head out of the water), lobtailing (raising its tail high and then smacking it on the water’s surface) and flipper slapping (smacking those 12-foot-long flippers on the water). The whale rolled over and over, showing off the beautiful flippers, dark on top and white on the bottom. Next we were treated to a series of partial breaches. The whale actually wheezed during one expulsion of breath. ”All that activity takes a lot of exertion,” said Izzy, laughing.

Fog and chilly sea spray be damned – a golden glow settled over the Salty Lady. Everyone smiled – including Captain Jared and First Mate Tack. Then a woman from England asked about something she noticed in the distance – a dark fin high above the water. Someone asked it if were a shark. One wag aboard called out, “If it is, we’re going to need a bigger boat.” Izzy concurred, and kept searching with his binoculars. Suddenly he erupted in a huge laugh. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have an orca!” It was an adult male, with a six-foot-tall dorsal fin – not a common site in the area.

And so we watched the top predator of the sea move through the waves. Orcas have been known to kill great white sharks, though more often they go for baby whales or old, sick whales. I’ve read that they consider tongue of blue whale a special delicacy. The orca did not come as close to the boat as the blues and the humpbacks, but we were close enough to appreciate the sleek body and that impressive dorsal fin.

Then it was back to San Francisco, back to land, back to longing for my fleece sheets. Exhilarated, cold and exhausted, I made my way home, where I peeled off layers. How many? On top, a camisole, a long-sleeved base-layer turtle-neck shirt, a long-sleeved fleece pullover, and a fleece vest. On bottom, Capilene longjohns, fleece-lined leggings and rain pants over all that. I also wore a three-quarter-length, water-resistant raincoat with a hood, a fleece “ear wrap,” a water-proof brimmed hat, sock liners, wool socks and my sturdiest tennis shoes. Still, I was cold.

I climbed into bed, snuggled into the fleece sheets and begged the cat to heat up some soup for me. She decided instead to join me in a nap. Later, I fed both of us and sat replaying the day in my mind. I took no photos, took no notes – just took it all in. What a day indeed!

1 comment:

  1. I've missed reading your blog (life just gets in the way, doggone it!). THIS one is even more of a gem than others. I could just feel being out on the boat with you. Thank you for the beautiful descriptions! Now I need to grab a fleece throw to warm up! I'm chilly just reading this! You've really set up a perfect life for yourself, Ms. Patricia! Yay for you!