Our boat was surrounded by whales! Drifting in the San Francisco Bay on our way out to the protected sanctuary of the Farallon Islands. Ahead of us, to the right, and to the left, were groups of whales feeding. It was exhilarating and beautiful. If you’ve never been whale watching and are considering taking a tour, I’ll walk you through what to expect, my experiences, and share tips and photos along the way!
San Francisco Whale Tours
For my birthday, my brother gave me a gift certificate for a 6-hour whale watching tour to the Farallon Islands for two with San Francisco Whale Tours. Upon reserving a spot for me and my dad, I received a confirmation email which included details on where to meet, what to wear, etc. The meeting point is located on Pier 39 in San Francisco. Walk down the pier, it’s the 2nd booth on the right.
It’s a quick walk over to our boat, the Kitty Kat. A 65 ft. x 25 ft. eco-friendly catamaran. With a low sake and minimal underwater noise, it’s a vessel that is designed to operate in sensitive marine environments. The tour group of about 30 people boarded and we were on our way. Over the loudspeaker, we are introduced to the crew; Captain Joe, Naturalist Michael, and Crew Member Josh. They proudly announce that San Francisco Whale Tours is a woman-owned business. As we leave the dock, the crew covers the safety rules as well as the rule to leave the seat down in the bathroom for the women (thank you!).
Cruising past Alcatraz
On our way out of the Bay, we pass alongside Alcatraz Island. The faded paint is still visible saying “Indians Welcome” and “Indian Land 1970”. Home to the abandoned Alcatraz prison, the old graffiti is another layer of American history on an already historic landmark. Starting in November 1969, Alcatraz Island was occupied by a group of Native Americans for 19 months. Upon landing, the protesters claimed the land “by right of discovery” and demanded the government turn it into a Native American cultural center and university. The occupation eventually ended peacefully and set a precedent for future Native American activism. This is not mentioned during the tour, which I understand as it has nothing to do with whale watching, but I found the history fascinating.
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Under the Golden Gate and out to sea
To get to the Farallon Islands, we go underneath the Golden Gate Bridge where the water is completely calm. The weather is perfect, with a cloudless sky and visibility for 40 miles. Once we are out of the bay, the water gets a little choppier and that’s when I misjudged my ability to not get seasick. I thought I would be okay but I was wrong.
About half-way to the islands, I start feeling mildly queasy and I then take some seasick pills which were to take 30 minutes to 1 hour to work. I should have taken them before getting onto the boat. Why didn’t I make them sooner? The brand I have says it can make me drowsy, that’s why. With how I’m feeling, I would rather be drowsy than seasick. I barely make it to the side of the boat in time and eventually, it subsides.
Whales and wildlife
Along the way, we start seeing seals, lots of birds and a TON of whales! The whales are feeding together. We can tell they are feeding because of the groups of birds circling overhead that are hoping to eat the whale’s leftovers. I can see the whales and their spouts of water shooting into the air but they are a bit far away. Throughout the journey, the crew is very respectful of the wildlife. They slow or turn off the engines whenever a whale is close by, not just to give us a chance to get photos but to avoid hitting them or disturbing them.
Although I look around and see at least a dozen whales, I am really hoping to see some jump into the air. With a brand new camera and it zoomed in all the way, most of my whale shots are the tips of their heads or tales. To get any photos of them, I have to have my camera turned on, aimed and zoomed otherwise by the time I raise my arms to take a photo, the whale is underwater again. The most impressive shots that I got, are of three humpback whales feeding together!
The Farallon Islands
The Farallon Islands, or Farallones, are a group of islands to the west of San Francisco. Mariners sometimes referred to the location as “Devil’s Teeth Islands”, referencing the dangerous underwater shoals that surround it. The area is probably best known for its great white sharks, attracted to the elephant seal population.
If you’re interested in a fascinating read to explore more of the Farallones, it’s unique history and it’s great white sharks, I recommend reading my book review of Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey. The bird aficionados among the tour group are eager to see the Farallones. We pull up to a large rounded rock that is covered in birds. Our guides stop using the microphone to talk to us because they don’t want to disturb the animals. Naturalist Michael points out the various types of birds such as the rare blue-footed booby. Each of those tiny dots below that look like rocks are actually hundreds of birds.
One of the crew members points out an egg yolk jellyfish floating in the water next to the boat. I can hear the barking of elephant seals lounging on the islands nearby as we slowly cruise past the Southeast Farallon. I see the crane that’s used to get on and off the island as well as the two houses which were from a time when families and children used to live on the island. We stay long enough to eat a bag lunch before heading back to San Francisco.
Along the way back, we see more birds, more whales, more seals and we’re told to make a wish as we pass back under the Golden Gate Bridge. The crew gives us more in-depth info into the conservation issues surrounding the area. For more about the conservation side of the trip, read my article about eco-friendly whale watching at The Salt Sirens.
They also provide a whiteboard listing all the species that we saw during the voyage.
- Humpback Whale
- California Sealion
- Harbor Seal
- Harbor Porpoise
- Steller’s Sealion
- Northern Elephant Seal
- Northern Fur Seal
- Western Gull
- European Starling
- Rock Pigeon
- Cooper’s Hawk
- Heermann’s Gull
- Double-crested Cormorant
- Brown Pelican
- California Gull
- Elegant Tern
- Parasitic Jaeger
- Common Murre
- Western Grebe
- Surf Scoter
- Brandt’s Cormorant
- Royal Tern
- Ring-billed Gull
- Sooty Shearwater
- Glaucous-winged Gull
- Pink-footed Shearwater
- Buller’s Shearwater
- Northern Gannet
- Blue-footed Booby
- Brown Booby
- Peregrine Falcon
- Tufted Puffin
- Pigeon Guillemot
- Black Oystercatcher
- Pelagic Cormorant
- Common Loon
- Egg Yolk Jellyfish
Whale Watching Tour Tip
- Unless you know you won’t get sick, I recommend taking some motion sickness pills before getting onto the boat. Also, take along some ginger chews to help during the trip.
- Use the bathroom on the dock before leaving. Although the bathroom on the boat is just fine, it is a tiny room on a rocking boat.
- Wear a baseball cap and with an ear wrap so you can stay warm and keep the sun out of your eyes.
- If you have a heavy camera or heavy binoculars, you may want to get a harness so the weight is carried on your back rather than your neck.
- Camera Settings: Set your camera to take the largest sized photos. That way when you’re zoomed in all the way and the whales are at a distance you can crop the photos later to make the whales appear closer.
- Camera Settings: Also set your camera to take consecutive photos. That way you when you take a photo of a whale in action, you get several shots to pick from.
- Camera Settings: Turn on Image Stabilization.
- I highly recommend reading Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey before visiting the Farallones to learn about its fascinating history and it’s sharks. Check out my full book review of Devil’s Teeth.
The camera that I used during this trip is a Canon EOS M5 with a 18mm-150mm lens from Amazon.
Exceptional service from the Captain and Crew
Special thank you to Captain Joe, Naturalist Michael, and Crew Member Joe. They were incredibly helpful, especially Naturalist Mike, who was the narrator throughout the voyage. He provided very insightful knowledge about the San Francisco Bay and its wildlife. He regularly was able to recognize and point out each species of wildlife and tell us about its behavior. The crew was charismatic, kind, and made the trip more entertaining. I do recommend taking a tour with San Francisco Whale Tours. It’s hours of entertainment and education, with a dose of San Francisco history and a lifetime of memories.
For more Bay Area adventures, check out my review of the USS Hornet.If you’d like to receive more travel tips, you can subscribe to the mailing list below or follow me on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, or Twitter.