From San Francisco out to the Farallon Islands, also known as the Devils Teeth, is a long trip even by day tripper standards. For most people, the trip out to the islands is all about the journey, with little or nothing to do with the destination. On our most recent trip (our third time actually, they say the third time’s the charm), against the wind – we were rewarded with the distraction of whales, lots of them. The journey out begins at a San Francisco landmark, Pier 39, bright and early at 8:00 A.M. The obligatory safety briefings greet you on the Kitty Kat, which is the boat belonging to San Francisco Bay Whale Tours, our guided whale watching tour company for the day. With Dramamine firmly entrenched in my stomach and only bland foods to boot, we were ready to head out into waters that our guide promised “might be a little bumpy.” I have learned that when a guide says things like that to you, they are normally giving you the tourist spin, intended to make you think “hey, I can handle bumpy”. I know better: we’re in for something more than speed bumps in a parking lot, nine foot swells we were told to expect…is that bad? Answer…why yes, yes it is!
The ride out of the bay was nice enough, chilly (think Mark Twain’s description of the summer he spent in San Francisco) and a bit breezy but nothing to dampen the spirits. Depending on the type of weather, it can make seeing whales very easy or very difficult. For instance, fog can make it to where you can’t see from one side of the boat to another, high seas can make it tough to see over the crest of a wave, but flat water makes it easy. We would see no flat water today! On the way out of the bay, you get some great looks at Alcatraz Island and then the Golden Gate Bridge, even passing under the iconic reddish-orange American structure.
The guide was right and the ride out was definitely bumpy with several people unable to keep the contents of their stomachs where they belonged. Better them than me! I recently tossed chum to the fishes on a snorkeling trip in the Florida Keys and was embarrassingly the only one that did. Not today! The combination of Dramamine, ginger gum, and graham crackers kept everything where it belonged. The etiquette of getting ‘sick’ on a boat is to go to the back of the boat. Little did some tourists know this as they sat at the back on the return trip with their arms casually resting on the rails . 😝 You have been warned!!
The first whale sighting came after about two hours, just when it was feeling like the six hour journey might just be a day with no whales. Per the captain, the first person to see a whale, which had to be confirmed by everyone on board seeing it as well, got a free chocolate bar. I think the reward should be a free t-shirt but hey I don’t make the rules. So somebody’s kid was the first to sight a whale and won himself a Kit Kat (I’m not really sure if it was a Kit Kat but if your boat is named the Kitty Kat, that’s what the reward should be). So good for the kid for winning a chocolate bar but yee haw for the rest of us for getting to see a real live wild whale, a humpback it was. We would end up seeing somewhere around 25 more humpbacks by the time we finished.
A little further into the trip, we saw more spouts and were able to see the largest animal to ever live on this earth, a blue whale. Our naturalist on board was a marine biologist, Steve Wood, who pointed out that the whales with color themed names are actually named so for the color of their skin, gray whales are truly gray, and blue whales were one of the only mammals that have blue skin. This proved to be true as the first blue whale we saw had a very light blue skin tone. Having seen a humpback earlier, this whale was truly much, much bigger. I believe that a humpback is around 45 feet long while blues can be over 100 feet. To see the blue come up for air and then slink its massive body back down into the water gave only the slightest of hints as to how big it really was and we were truly privileged to see one in person. We would see two more of these big fellas before reaching the islands where we would turn around for the return trip back to San Francisco.
Maybe not for everyone on the boat but definitely for my wife and I was the chance to see the very rough Farallon Islands, which are 27 miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge. The islands are part of a large marine sanctuary and the protection it affords has helped the populations of seabirds, sea lions, whales, and even Great White Sharks recover to levels not seen for many decades. The islands themselves are beautiful in a very nasty way, with jagged teeth sticking up out of the water, the water surrounding them is black, and it has a feeling of remoteness that you can only find in very wild, protected places. The first time I saw these islands years ago, they were shrouded in fog, adding a certain mysterious quality to them. Today, the are basking in direct sunlight, exposing what you can definitely smell: bird shit by the tons.
There are also a few researchers stationed on the island and they have to deal with some of the most extreme conditions of any job out there. Isolation, extreme weather and water that has to be delivered to them from the mainland are all part of an honest day’s work for them. While we were idling just off shore, waiting for a minor bathroom problem to be corrected, a sailboat loaded with supplies was met by a zodiac from the island to restock the researchers stores. They are there to study the bird life, plant life, shark and seal populations but we’re here to see whales before heading back and while we were still idling just offshore, a gray whale popped up right in front of the boat. It was to be the last whale we saw on the trip and our third whale species. After four hours of fighting the winds and swells it was time to head back.
Going with the wind and swells back to Pier 39 took two more hours and most of us were primarily interested in just getting back to the dock at this point. So the ride did prove to be “bumpy” as evidenced by more than a handful of people getting seasick during the voyage. Seeing the whales though would have been worth it either way. They are incredible wild creatures and we felt so fortunate to see so many of them in one short six hour trip.
So about thirty whales, three species of them, and even a tufted puffin as an added bonus and we were very happy customers. Saving the whales appears to be working, let’s keep it going! Next up, Alcatraz!
Having been to San Francisco a few times, you would think a trip to Alcatraz is something that I would have done already. Usually due to a lack of planning, I’ve never been. My wife Kimberly, has always wanted to go to “The Rock” but this is a place that’s harder to get to than you’d think. Often, you have to book months in advance and this time we (she) did. Even better, it was a night tour! Alcatraz is a must do on any tourists list of things to do in San Francisco. I tend to shy away from touristy places but I do think some can be better than others. This was definitely the case with Alcatraz Island. It doesn’t matter if your reason to come out to the Rock was to see the prison, to see a great view of the Bay Area, to see the birds, or all of the above. This is worth all of the advanced planning required to get there. For me, it ended up being all of the above. While on the island, the National Park Service does a great job of giving you the information you need on an audio tour while giving you the freedom to do it at your own pace. They also let you roam around the island (to most places) and that was nice as you had a chance to go on a field trip without a chaperone.
I was very interested in learning that Al Capone spent four years on the island and the audio tour, narrated by ex-prisoners and former guards, mentioned that Capone was different than the mobster we’ve all heard about in history and the movies. There were many great stories about escape attempts, prison riots, Indian takeovers, and the daily lives of those who spent time there. All told, we were on the island for a couple of hours and could have spent a little more time there but two hours seemed just about right. The tour of Alcatraz at night added an additional element of creepiness to the mystique of the place with its dim lighting and dark shadows. I wish there was an option to spend a night there to more completely experience the ambience of the place but two hours on this Rock will have to do for now.