It was another incredible weekend visually foraging for wildlife out on the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
Since the season is in transition between the productive upwelling season and the storms of winter, the weather is fine and the wildlife a reflection of the mixture of the seasons. This weekend we were fortunate to see a minke whale, a species not often seen in these waters. The shy black whale swam north along the Pt. Bonita Channel not far from the Marin Headlands as we steamed north towards Bolinas. At a maximum length of 35 feet, the Northern minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) are the second smallest baleen whale, and the smallest in the Northern Hemisphere. Minke whales are widely distributed throughout the world, commonly found from the poles to the tropics, but they prefer the open sea.
Minke whales have been exploited by whalers since at least the 1930s, but were previously overlooked by hunters due to their relatively small size. Since these whales have been targeted by commercial whalers, several thousand have been hunted in the Northern Hemisphere and at least 100,000 have been killed in the Southern Hemisphere. In the past, these whales have been commercially hunted by China, Iceland, Korea, Russia and Taiwan. Today, they are still taken by whaling countries such as Greenland, Japan and Norway as a source of food and for ‘scientific research.”
The California/Oregon/Washington population is estimated to be 500-1,000 animals, so we were fortunate to watch the whale as she shallow dived in the characteristic “head up, roll and dive” without showing the fluke’s pattern.
The ocean had barely a mild bump and little wind and the sun glittered on the surface as the Outer Limits headed west on the journey to the islands. En route we spotted a number of unusual seabirds with the help of two biologists who were hitching a ride as part of the Farallones Patrol. This voluntary program incorporates private yachts and fishing boats like the Outer limits to transport people and supplies to aid the Point Reyes Bird Observatory who work on the island. Abe is a graduate student, while Matthew is a post-doctoral researcher at UC Santa Cruz. They’re recording the calls of storm petrels on the island and with the help of computer algorithms are able to distinguish individuals among all the cacophony of nesting seabirds.
As one of the most important nesting sites for seabirds in North America, hundreds of thousands of seabirds visit the Farallones each year. One thing I can attest to on a visit is the sheer overwhelming noise of the birds calling, courting and generally raising a ruckus.
It’s incredible that the scientists can isolate these sound signatures from the rest.
Near the island, we see black-footed albatross surfing the airwaves and rhinoceros and Cassin’s auklets skittering along the surface — so fat they can barely fly.
The humpbacks are taking their exit but we are still fortunate enough to steer a parallel path alongside as she steadily sails south. The pace is so even that the captain is able to set a speed and course so that every five minutes the whale rises nearby as she surfaces to breath before diving again. Some dives last nine minutes but most are between five and six minutes. We track the whale for over 45 minutes until the passengers are as somnolent as the whale.
Alongside the island, we encounter our resident California gray whale off the southern end. Also present were two of the white shark cage diving operations that were hoping a shark would swim by. We idled along transferring our passengers as we talked about white sharks, hoping to see the enigmatic predator. We didn’t see a shark but we did see Tagging of Pacific Pelagic (TOPP) researcher Scott Anderson out listening for tagged sharks with his acoustic monitoring device in a whaler the size of a female white shark. These biologists tag sharks and follow their movements to learn more about individual behavior, mobility and the shark population in general. As one of the early members of the shark watch program on the island, Scott is extremely knowledgeable and can identify individuals from their scars and markings.
We circle the island watching the California sea lions frolic near shore, while steller sea lions and elephant seals bask in the warm sunlight on the rocks of Fisherman’s Cove. On the radio, we hear that my colleague, Dr. Chris Pincetech, who is leading a trip with the Oceanic Society has had the good fortune to see white shark investigating an object at the surface. Chris is with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and is conducting a Leatherback watch program along the California coast. This project uses wildlife biologist on tours like ours and other voluntary citizen scientists to identify and record observations of these endangered sea turtles. The largest of the sea turtle species, leatherbacks visit our coastal waters to feed on the abundance of jellyfish each summer. In the late fall, the turtles leave the Sanctuary and head west three thousand miles to Japan and Indonesia where they nest. These sea turtles can weigh as much as a ton and can dive nearly 4000 feet! Industrial fishing practices combined with illegal poaching, deadly vessel strikes, and ocean pollution have driven leatherbacks towards extinction. For over 20 years, the Sea Turtle Restoration Project has worked to protect leatherback sea turtles from slipping closer to extinction. The largest and most majestic of all sea turtles survived the extinction of the dinosaurs over 65 million years ago but is now struggling to survive more than another few decades due to deadly industrial fishing, illegal poaching, and threats from vessel strikes and ocean pollution. One of the campaigns by STRP is to help establish our nearshore waters in the Sanctuary and adjacent waters as critical habitat. This designation would increase protection from gill net fisheries and give these incredible animals a chance to survive. Watch this video to learn more:
Today, Chris didn’t see a sea turtle (although he did see a shark), but the Leatherback Watch Project successfully reported 20 sightings of leatherbacks this season. The STRP and now the Shark Stewards project I’ll be leading with The Turtle Island Restoration Network will continue studying, advocating and protecting endangered sea life in the future. To sharks, it’s still Sharktober. Weather permitting, we will continue our expeditions through SF Bay Whale Watching over the next few weekends looking for turtles and sharks.