Birds and Seals At The Farallones National Wildlife Refuge

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Despite living near large bodies of water for most of my life, I don’t know I’ve spent as much time on it as I have the past few years.
Growing up in Santa Cruz, my parents were landlubbers. After several slightly harrowing attempts, I stayed away from surfboards. And save for a semester in college when a friend and I rowed a zipper out of the Santa Cruz Harbor three days a week, and serene kayak trips on Hawaiian vacations, for most of my adult life, the water’s edge has been just fine.
That’s changed a bit of late Having married a sailor and now living on an island (albeit a little one) with an active sailing community, the increasing prevalence of my time spent on boats has become, perhaps inevitably, a regular event. For the past few weeks, it seems when I haven’t been doing a show, I’ve been heading out on the water.
As with most things I do of late, I’m not so concerned with gear (in this case, boat types) or adrenaline (speed, competition, frequency), but I greatly enjoy the chance to experience another side of nature: how the wind shows its change on the surface of the bay before you feel it, the way seals bob in calm repose when the wind and current are low, diving Least and Caspian terns, low-soaring pelicans, the occasional flash of a sea porpoise. Plus there’s something just downright soothing about rocking on water for hours at a time. It’s a nice reset button I can get into.
Saturday, we went out on the Bay on a friend’s boat for an afternoon of sailing. On Memorial Day, we boarded a whale-watching boat run by San Francisco Whale Tours in a bid to see some of the gray, blue and humpback whales that forage in the deep Pacific.  While I’ve seen hundreds of migrating whales from shore when living on the California coast, been whale-watching in New Zealand, and gone deep-sea fishing off of Monterey, I’d yet to whale-watch out of San Francisco.
Memorial Day was threatening rain and there was a low fog that inhibited visibility out of the gate and to the Farallon Islands. I was as excited to see the Farallones as I was a whale, even if the jagged rock outcroppings 30 miles out of the gate where capped with low fog.
We could smell the birds who roost there before we reached a safe viewing distance. There, we could make out thousands upon thousands of nesting Murres. Our on-board naturalist told us how in the early days of San Francisco, locals came out to the islands to forage Murre eggs (one egg equaled a decent sized omelet) and fur seals. When the effects of all that pillaging became evident, President Roosevelt created the Farallon Reservation to protect the islands and its wildlife. In 1969, it was expanded to become a National Wildlife Refuge.
Now the Farallon Islands are an integral part of the Gulf of the Farallones National Wildlife Refuge, the birds and seals have recovered and access is limited. There weren’t any other boats at the islands when we pulled up a few hundred yards from its craggy shore. A few seals swam out to check out our boat and a tufted puffin flew overhead as gulls, guillemots and murres wheeled overhead and swam in the inky sea. It was slightly spooky…and magical. I felt we’d gone very far away.
After idling a bit so we could see as much as we could see there, we motored on West, in search of yet deeper waters.
This is where we’d find the whales….
Entering this part of the Pacific felt like driving across a (cold) desert: there’s so much out there, but you have to really look and be in it to get just how much. A vast expanse of water and foggy horizon greeted us. The fog lifted a bit, the water was calm, and, our captain said, these conditions were optimal for whale viewing. We whale-less whale-watchers huddled in our storm coats and chewed on ginger gum, looking at the horizon for signs of spouting. We saw an albatross and another puffin, porpoises and auklets, more murres, seagulls floating on large seaweed ‘rafts’…but  the whales, seen only a day previous, where foraging elsewhere. Evidently, a small percentage of whale-watching trips turn out this way (SF Whale-Watching graciously offers the next trip on them if you don’t see whales). Eventually we headed back across the water, toward the Golden Gate and shallower waters. But I felt energized rather than disappointed, and happy I have a make-up trip ahead of me.