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  By Sharon Gray - Photographer and author, Sharon Gray reports on San Francisco savvy lifestyles, neighborhoods, getaways - and some of the best of attractions, events, shopping, restaurants, home decor, gardens, and local news in and around San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay Area - through the lens from Z to A. Suggestions or comments? Send them to or use the comment feature after each posting.

Sharon Gray Whale Watch PhotoLog,
Humpback Whales near Farallon Islands Part II

June 4, 9:07 AM

Photos © Sharon Gray/Gray & Gray Media

Click to visit HULICAT Sportfishing & Charter Boat website

The Farallon Islands are located within the boundary zone between two of the Earthís major tectonic plates, the North American and Pacific plates. The rugged, stark granite cliffs of the Farallon Islands are parts of continental plates slowly pushed up above the surface of the water over several million years. The water around the Farallon Islands, The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, plunges to depths of 6,000 feet and serves as a summer feeding area for humpback whales off Northern California. The islands' 211 acres of rocks, reach to 350 feet on the southern island, and for decades have been off-limits to all humans, except for a handful of biologists.

The Farallon Islands

A Franciscan friar named the desolate rocks "Farallon," meaning "jagged rock".


To learn more about Humpback Whale behavior and in hopes of spotting Delta and Dawn, I went on a whale watching expedition out in the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary with the Oceanic Society. I saw six humpback whales, but could not see all of their flukes nor identify whether or not they belonged to Delta and Dawn - who may have returned to this area after leaving the San Francisco Bay.

Humpback Whales in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary

These baleen whales use the Gulf and Cordell Bank to the north as feeding grounds during the summer and fall months. Their prey consists primarily of krill. These massive acrobatic whales can be seen blowing, diving and leaping from the sea. Humpback whales have unique flukes and dorsal fins, and long white pectoral fins.

The whale watchers said "Wow" and "Ohhh!" as the powerful yet graceful tail of a humpback whale raised and poised a moment before the whale glided deeper below the surface in search of food. Raising the tail at the start of a deep dive saves swimming energy by helping to push the whale into a long underwater glide - perhaps a body length below the surface. When a humpback whale surfaces for air, the distinctive hump by which it receives its name, is visable. It is only on the deep dives that the Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) displays its tail flukes.

Humpback Whale Flukes

All whale flukes - whale tails - are unique. These humpback whale fluke photos (above and below) were taken for ID purposes on our whale watching trip by Oceanic Society marine biologist and whale expert, Isidore Szczepaniak. The photos, taken today, show the wide variation in markings and can be used to identify these whales again.

Humpback whales' flukes are very powerful and efficient. They have to be; they are the humpback's main defense against predators like sharks or orcas, and must allow the whale to swim many thousands of miles a year. The humpbacks have the longest known migration of any mammal (from Antarctica to Columbia).  

Humpback flukes can reach a width of up to 18 feet. The shape and color pattern on the humpback whale's dorsal fin and flukes - tail - are as individual in each animal as are fingerprints in humans. The humpback whale's black and white color pattern extends to the flukes. When the humpback whale "sounds" - goes into a long or deep dive - it usually throws its flukes upward, exposing the black and white patterned underside. This pattern is distinctive to each whale. The flippers range from all white to all black dorsally, but are usually white ventrally. The humpback whale is one of the rorquals. Rorquals have two characteristics in common: dorsal fins on their backs, and ventral pleats running from the tip of the lower jaw back to the belly area.  

In the mid 1960's researchers began to photograph and catalog individual marine mammals, including whales, with the intention of the identification of individual animals by their unique physical markings and scars. Locations of the sightings, along with the time and date of sightings were also noted with the photograph for purposes of tracking the life-cycle of the mammals.


Izzy and Tom used the boat's sonar pictured above, to pinpoint time and location of whale sightings.

As the image collection grew, computerization of the images became necessary and possible starting in the mid 1980's. Today, a humpback whale can be identified by a high quality photo of its flukes' patterns through a relational database of more than 25,000 images. The new form of research known as "photo-identification," in which individual whales are identified, catalogued, and monitored, has led to valuable information about such things as humpback whale population sizes, migration, sexual maturity, calf mortality and behavior patterns.

Baby humpbacks are born in warm, tropical waters, travel thousands of miles back to summer feeding areas, (including the coastal waters off Marin County, San Francisco County and the Farallon Islands), with their mothers - nursing frequently on very rich milk. Many calves return as adults to these same breeding and feeding areas for the rest of their lives.   

The Farallon Islands

The rugged landscape of Southeast Farallon

The Farallon Islands, 27 miles out in the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco, lie amid the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, a food-rich marine ecosystem which attracts whales, dolphins, seals and seabirds each summer and fall, to feed and to breed. Island rocks are covered with sea lions, including massive Steller's sea lions, now on the Endangered Species List. The Farallon Islands were established as a refuge in 1909 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Great Arch Rock, Aulon Island, next to Sugarloaf

The islands are home to thousands of seals and sea lions. The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is a bountiful marine ecosystem attracting endangered whales, sharks and huge schools of dolphins. Twenty-three species of marine mammals, including 20 species of whales and dolphins, can be found here. Few humans have set foot on the islands because surrounding waters are rough, weather conditions are harsh, and there is not a natural cove in which to safely disembark.

During June and July, California and Steller's sea lions pup at the islands and many more animals are seen hauled out on the rocks. Northern Fur Seals also breed here during the summer and are considered one of the success stories for the sanctuary and refuge since they were almost completely wiped out by fur traders in the late 1800's, said a Farallon Biologist PRBO Conservation Scientist.   

Whales and Other Marine Mammals Sighted in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary

The following marine mammals have been sighted in the waters off San Francisco County and Marin County near the Farralon Islands:


Beaked Whale (Berardius bairdii)   
Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus)
Common Dolphin (Cuelphinas delpus) 
Dallís porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli)
Fin Whales (Balaenoptera physalus) 
Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus)
Harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)
Killer whale (Orcinus orca)
Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) 
Northern Right Whale Dolphin
Risso dolphin (Phocoena phocoena)
Sei Whale (Balaenoptera borealis)
Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus)
White sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris)

There are five species of Pinnipeds that breed on the Farallon Islands:


California sea lion (Zalophus californianus)
Northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris)
Harbor seal (Phoca vitulina)
Northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus)
Steller's sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus)

Bird Watching at Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge

The two largest of the islands, Southeast Farallon Island and West End Island, cover just 110 acres, and have been the focus of important research on breeding seabirds and migratory songbirds for decades. The waters around the islands are managed as the Gulf of the Farallons National Marine Sanctuary (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration); and the USFWS owns the islands and manages it as part of the San Francisco Bay NWR Complex. Ecological research on birds is coordinating jointly by USFWS and PRBO.

On close inspection, I saw that the islands were completely covered with wildlife, mostly birds. It would be difficult to take a step on land without having to avoid a seal, moving a bird, or breaking a bird's egg. The Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge is refuge for the largest seabird rookery in the continental US - with nesting Tufted Puffins, Pigeon Guillemots, Rhinoceros Auklets, Shearwaters, and other species. The islands provide critical habitat for more than a quarter million breeding seabirds, the largest concentration of breeding seabirds on the West Coast and in the United States, outside of Alaska. The seabird nesting season is from March through August.

Oceanic Society marine biologist and bird expert, Roger Harris chats about bird and seal sightings with an enthusiast.

The Farallon Islands support an astounding number and diversity of breeding California seabirds; and in 2000, recorded the world's largest breeding colonies of Ashy Storm-Petrel (2500+ pr.), and some of largest aggregations of breeding Brandt's Cormorant (5500+ pr.), Western Gull (nearly 20,000 pr.), Pigeon Guillemot (800+ pr.) and Cassin's Auklet (15,000+ pr.).

Bird sightings may include: Western grebe, Brown pelican, Double-cested cormorant, Brandt's cormorant, Pelagic cormorant, Black oystercatcher, Brown pelican, Sotty shearwater, Red-necked phalarope, Pink-footed shearwater, Western gull, Elegant tern, Common murre, Cassin's auklet, Rhinoceros auklet, Tufted puffin, and Pigeon guillemot.

Photo of Tufted Puffin in the Gulf of the Farallons National Marine Sanctuary by Oceanic Society marine biologist Isidore Szczepaniak

There are approximately 300,000 breeding seabirds on the Farallon Islands during the summer. There are 12 breeding species of seabirds: Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, Cassin's Auklet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Tufted Puffin, Ashy Storm-petrel, Leach's Storm-petrel, Brandt's Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, Double Crested Cormorant, Western Gull and Black Oystercatcher.

Scientists and Research on the Farallon Islands

The Farallon Islands are a National Wildlife Refuge, sparsely inhabited by scientists who stay in housing including the two houses in the photo below. Marine scientists live on the island up to three months at a time, isolated from the mainland, and record island activities in their roles as wildlife guardians. Supply boats make the trip to the Farallon Islands every two weeks, but if the wind is blowing hard, and sea conditions are hazardous, the supply boat can be canceled; it can be more than a month between visits from boats bringing other human beings and fresh food.

View of research station at Marine Terrace Mirounga Bay, with Farallon Island Light in upper right hand corner above.

We're stewards of the island, said a biologist for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, which runs a cooperative program with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Our job is to monitor and protect the wildlife here.

Return Trip to San Francisco

Leaving the Farallon Islands in our wake, we relaxed on the ride back to port. We enjoyed our time together and shared stories of sightings of whales, other marine mammals and birds.

This couple visiting from England, chose to stay inside on the return trip. While he napped, she looked through a collection of photos from other trips to the Farallon Islands.

Back to Port by 5pm

Some of us were still on deck watching for birds and marine life as we crossed under the Golden Gate Bridge into the San Francisco Bay. 

Our small group of cetacean enthusiasts returned from our journey to the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and back with memorable whale and marine life encounters. We have burned spectacular images into our memories - to last a lifetime. And I got some great photos as well. I am already planning on going out again with the Oceanic Society in July when the blue whales are in town!

Click to visit HULICAT Sportfishing & Charter Boat website

Sharon Gray Whale Watch PhotoLog, Humpback Whales near Farallon Islands Part I

Timeline and list of previous Delta and Dawn Humpback Whale Saga articles:  

Oceanic Society: For recorded information on Oceanic Society's current sightings of wildlife call the sightings hotline 415 474-0488. Oceanic Society Expeditions is the only non-profit, professional nature tour operator in the Bay Area specializing in educational and research programs since 1972. For a Current Catalog or detailed and updated trip information, including dates and costs, call 800 326-7491 or 415 441-1106 Monday thru Friday 9-5 PST. Photo of breaching courtesy of the Oceanic Society.

PRBO Conservation Science on Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. An account of the trials and tribulations of conducting ecological fieldwork on a small, rocky island 28 miles west of San Francisco

Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary

Photo courtesy of The Gulf of the Farallones National Marin Sanctuary.