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Watching Cetaceans in The Bay Area: Where to go, What to Look For & How to Watch by Matthew Scott

It was four in the morning. I was leaving the relative civilization I had called home for the last few months and traveling across the Scottish highlands to the west coast, a journey that would take me four and a half hours. The goal was to arrive at Stoer Lighthouse with a day’s cetacean watching still ahead of me.

Watching cetaceans from the shore can be a hugely rewarding experience that can be all too easy to get swept up in. Trying to add every species you can to your ‘seen’ list, your heightened senses while standing in the usually harsh shoreline weather conditions, the mystery of what is out there and the skill of identifying a cetacean; they all add up and pretty soon you’re spending every spare Sunday out in the open, staring out to sea with binoculars in hand. Did I mention it’s completely free and there is no schedule other than the one you impose on yourself? Shore watching, as opposed to boat watching, has massive benefits and rewards.

The great news is the Bay Area has some of the best shore watching there is out there. Below I will give you all the tools you need to get up and start watching. The locations to go depending on what you want to see, what to look for when staring at the vast expanse of ocean and how to identify a fluke or dorsal fin to species level.

What Species Can You See?

Most common species in the Bay Area:

The Humpback iScreen Shot 2016-11-07 at 4.49.06 PM.pngs relatively easy to identify when you know what to look for. The coloration along the back is very dark and uniform compared to other whales and they are very stocky. Look for the dorsal fin which has a distinctive shape. Not as pronounced or curved as the Fin, Sei or Minke (see below). If you see the pectoral fins or fluke it becomes much easier to identify. The pectoral fins are much longer than any other whale, white and knobby. The tail has a distinctive shape, also with white markings on the underside. They are one of the most surface active whales, breaching and flipper slapping often.

Where? Point Bonita Lighthouse; eastern coastal trail overlook.
Time? Summer & fall months. Some are thought to stay around the area year round.

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 4.49.14 PM.pngSeen during its summer and winter migration when it passes the Bay Area. Similar in size to the humpback is the Gray whale, however the two are quite easy to tell apart if seen for more than a second. Look for a lack of a dorsal fin, instead a hump is present. The hump is undistinguishable from the ‘knuckles’ that line the back behind the dorsal fin to the tail. Look for a lighter gray color than the humpback and mottled lighter patches over the body. The head is often covered with lice and barnacles, giving it the impression of calluses growing around the mouth. It has a predictable breathing pattern when migrating of blowing 3-6 times at 15 second intervals before diving for 5 minutes.

Where? Point Reyes.
Time? Migration peaks at mid-January and mid-March. Heads to Baja California for winter months to give birth and nurse and then north to feed in summer months.


Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 4.50.12 PM.pngThe Bottlenose dolphin can be seen inside the bay as well as swimming past the California coast line. Look for pods of 2-10; they can be very surface active when stopped in an area. Equally they can be seen traveling where it is likely to see them only surfacing to breath before going under water. Look for the dorsal fin which has a distinctive curve to it. The upper body is dark and the tail stock is thick. If you see the head clearly it is easy to identify this species because the melon and beak come together to create a pronounced ‘bottle’ shape. Easy to mistake for Risso’s dolphins if seen in rough water or only briefly and also the Harbour porpoise which has a similar color and overlapping range. The Risso’s dorsal fin is markedly taller and pointier and they have lots of white scarring along the back and dorsal fin. The Harbour porpoise has a more subtle triangular shaped dorsal fin and a distinctive rolling motion.

Where? Fort Point; Muir beach overlook
Time? Year Round.

The Harbour porpoise is the most pervasive species inside the bay but also very shy, often disappearing when boats travel past. The Harbour porpoise is the smallest of the cetaceans seen in the bay area and has a rolling motion when it breathes that comes from having such a short body length. The head seems to appear in the same place the tail then disappears. Imagine a fin on a wheel spinning on a static axis. That and the dorsal fin shape, very triangular anScreen Shot 2016-11-07 at 4.50.20 PM.pngd not as curved as the bottlenose, are the two main identifying features. Rarely seen breaching.

Where? inside the bay:Peninsula Point; Point Cavallo
Time? Year Round.

Rarer species in the Bay Area:

 screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-4-51-24-pmThere are three stocks of Orca that you have the potential to see from the Bay Area; the Southern Resident stock (SRS), the West Coast Transient stock (WCTS), and the Offshore stock. Each stock range has the potential of overlapping with each other however the WCTS is the most likely seen from shore with the SRS spending most of its time further north and the offshore stock tending to stay out to sea. Seen year round, the peak months are around March & April. Orca sightings will usually be a result of luck or dedicated orca tracking. Look for an unmistakably tall dorsal fin in males and a taller-than-bottlenose dorsal fin in females with a distinctly black color. The saddle patch of faded white behind the dorsal fin is something unique to orcas. Iconic black and white colouration across body. They usually travel in small pods but lone males can be seen as well.

Where? Point Reyes; Fort Funston observation deck
Time? Peak months March & April

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 4.51.41 PM.pngThe Risso’s dolphin can be confused with the bottlenose dolphin if seen from afar however the Risso’s has a markedly tall and pointed dorsal fin and no beak. They are a similar color however the Risso’s has distinctive scarring that gets more prevalent over the body as it ages.

Where? Point Reyes
Time? Year round. Normally prefer offshore waters.

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 4.52.39 PM.png
Common dolphins
are a lot less stocky than Risso’s or bottlenose dolphins, having a much sleeker tail stock and narrower dorsal fin. Look for the hour glass pattern on their side, with yellow towards the front of the body and dulled white along the tail stock. This species is usually pelagic and spends a lot of time in large groups. They are much quicker in their movements than the bottlenose, creating more splash as they enter the water. Sometimes they will travel in mixed species pods with pacific white-sided dolphin.

Where? Point Reyes
Time? Year round. Normally prefer offshore waters.

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-4-52-46-pmSmaller than the common dolphin, the pacific white-sided dolphin can be mistaken for Dall’s porpoise due to a similar colouration of dorsal fin and similar splashing motion when moving through the water however this species has a much more complex body pattern as is much more playful on the surface. Usually seen in large pods travelling at speed with lots of surface spray. Pods can be mixed with other species such as common dolphin.

Where? Point Reyes
Time? Year round. Year round. Prefers deeper, continental shelf waters but can be seen closer to shore.

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 4.38.16 PM.png

From top to bottom: Blue, Fin, Sei, Minke. While all have three-quarters-back dorsal fins and very similar fluke shapes, there are things to look for to tell these species of rorqual apart. The Blue whale, so named for its colouration, has an oceanic blue colour that blends well with the sea with faintly mottled white patches along the back. The dorsal fin is a slightly different shape to the other three, looking more like a humpback dorsal fin than a bottlenose dorsal fin. The Fin, Sei and Minke all have similar characteristics however the Minke is most common closer to shore and northern hemisphere animals have distinctive white ‘arm bands’ on the pectoral fins. The Fin and Sei whales look the most similar however there is a marked difference in size with the adult Fin whale around 59-72ft and the adult Sei whale reaching 39-52ft. With experience you can count the amount of time the back spends gliding out of the water before the dorsal fin is seen and use that to estimate body size.

Where? Point Reyes
Time? Blue: Summer & Fall.
Fin: Summer & Fall, less common than Blue.
Sei: Prefers offshore waters, unlikely to see.
Minke: year round but prefers continental shelf waters.

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 4.53.37 PM.pngThe short-finned pilot whale is not as often seen along the west coast after the 82-83 El Nino event. Easy to distinguish if seen, males have a distinctive ‘hook’ shaped dorsal fin one third of the way down its back. Females have a bottlenose-like dorsal fin but it is still one third along the back. There is a distinct bulbous melon on the head of the animal in both males and females. Look for a white patch behind the dorsal fin similar to the orca’s saddle patch. Has a thick tail stock. Prefers deeper waters and often seen in the company of smaller cetaceans. 

Where? Point Reyes
Time? Colder water months spent around Bay Area.
Disclaimer: There will be other species such as the beaked whales and the sperm whale however because they are rarely seen in shallow waters you are very unlikely to see them venturing anywhere near the coastline. The majority of the time you will have a view of around 3-10km out to sea depending on how high you are standing while you watch and the weather conditions. The continental shelf doesn’t start until you get past the Farallon islands, 50 km away. Further south in Monterey Bay there is a sub-marine canyon that brings deep water close to shore and allows sightings of these deeper diving species from land.

Now you know what to look for, there are a few things to consider when watching:

  1. Scan the ocean systematically, alternating between binoculars and the naked eye.
  2. Look for signs that might indicate a cetacean is near.
  3. Be aware that deteriorating weather conditions will make it harder to spot cetaceans.
  4. Dress appropriately and bring food and water.
1. It is far too easy to miss a dolphin close to shore because you are fixating on the horizon, and vice versa. When you look through binoculars your peripheral vision will drastically decrease, which makes it easy to miss things. Instead, take the binoculars and scan the available ocean surface in a systematic way, going from one side to the other (maybe in a snake pattern coming from the horizon to the shore). Once you have done this spend some time scanning the ocean in a similar way with the naked eye.  Repeat.
2. When you are scanning, look for signs that might help you identify a cetacean. Scan a little and then when you pick up on one of these, spend some time stopped looking at it until you can either confirm there is a cetacean there or move on. These include:
-Un-uniform splashing. Splashes going the opposite direction to the prevailing wind or splashes that are higher than the white caps may be.
-Birds feeding or circling a particular area. Often birds will piggy back on the successful hunt of cetaceans, letting them carall the fish together and drive them towards the surface and then diving in and taking some fish for themselves. This is an easy way to locate food patches and keep an eye on their activity. Look for gulls, turns, pelicans etc. Any fish-eating or opportunistic bird.
-Glints from the sun reflecting off the ocean. When a cetacean comes up for air they expose their wet dorsal fin which can pick up sunlight and reflect it back towards you. If you catch a reflection you can track the area you think a cetacean might come up to breathe before moving on if you are mistaken.
3. The pacific is an exposed place and will often have less-than-perfect conditions for spotting cetaceans. You will be less likely to see a fin or flipper when there is an increased swell or increase in the amount and size of white caps on the water.
4. Prepare yourself so you will be comfortable exposed to the elements with warm clothes, snacks and a thermos. Shore watching is a patience game that requires some stamina. This can be frustrating at times but also makes sightings hugely rewarding.

Points to watch from around the Bay Area:

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 4.47.10 PM.png

Written by Matthew Scott: Post graduate marine biologist; spotter of whales; writer for ACS SF chapter; swimmer of oceans; companion to dogs.

Acknowledgements: All cetacean illustrations from American Cetacean Society: http://acsonline.org/education/fact-sheets/ Map from google earth
Find out more: Follow this blog for monthly articles related to any and all things Bay Area cetacean
Information about cetaceans listed above and more: http://acsonline.org/education/fact-sheets/
Spyhopper: American Cetacean Society’s quarterly newsletter. http://acsonline.org/publications/acsspyhopper/

2016 Research & Travel Grants

We are proud to announce our

2016 Research Grant Awardees!

Maren AndersonView Into Vocalizations”   $1,000.00 Research Grant

Kia Hayes: “Contaminant concentrations in Eastern North Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) – spatial and temporal patterns and influence of life-history parameters.”   $1,000.00 Research Grant

Dr. Christian D. Ortega Ortiz:  Comparison of humpback whale singing behavior in two contrasting acoustic environments: Revillagigedo Island and Mexican Central Pacific.   $900.00 Research Grant

Chiara Bertulli: Population structure and conservation status of white-beaked (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) and Atlantic white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus acutus) across the North Atlantic   $500.00 Research Grant

Claire Simeone:Determine the role sinus parasites play in stranded cetaceans in central California, by combining data from gross necropsy, histopathology, and advanced imaging.”   $500.00 Research Grant

F. Urrutia-Osorio:Photo-identification of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) in the Canal de Ballenas area: providing the community with information needed for their conservation”   $500.00 Research Grant 

Read more here…

Full Research PDF’s available upon request

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Being part of ACS puts you in good company – conservation practitioners, marine scientists, local chapter teams, and concerned citizens who take personal action, reach out to educate and give you a clear path for information and involvement in the protection of cetaceans and their habitats. Your membership contribution and any additional support you designate go a long way to help ACS fulfill its mission.  As the world’s first whale conservation organization, ACS has long been dedicated to developing public education initiatives, funding research projects, and implementing conservation actions aimed at protecting cetaceans in their natural environments.

As a member, you will have access to ALL ACS events, learn about cetaceans and conservation efforts, meet like-minded people, and help ACS fulfill its mission.

We have different levels of membership, but you can join for as little as $35 a year!

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“Blimps and Whales”

Bethany Argisle & Neil Osborn’s book, “Blimps & Whales,” is a beautifully illustrated story of love and cooperation between two great beings, a blimp and a whale. This charming story recaps how the children of San Francisco inspired and celebrated World Whale Day, including messages about the health of our oceans and the need to protect whales and their migration routes.

Bethany has been an advocate since the early 1970’s, inspiring young people to notice, to listen, and to protect the sea and its inhabitants through theatre, music and appearances.

You can purchase her book through the iTunes app store or on Season’s Studios’ website HERE.



Oceanic Dolphins, Family Delphinidae

We all share a love of dolphins and whales. But there is another question – what we really know about them, about the whole order of cetaceans? Meera and Oleg Finodeyev are passionate about them and they discovered a very simple truth – “we love them but we don’t know them”. Because of that they created a mini-series of videos about order of cetaceans.

Irony is that there is no single source where one can go and learn about this civilization. Creation of these videos and digging into vast ocean of internet information was very tedious but an enlightening process and they wish to share its results with you. Please, invest a bit of your time to learn more about these Earthlings – they are amazing!

Dramatic 24-hour Gray Whale Disentanglement off Laguna Beach, CA

Capt. Dave and his wife, Gisele, were headed to dinner with friends Friday evening at 5:30 PM when they received a call from one of their whale watching boats that a whale with a huge amount of gillnet wrapped around its tail flukes had been spotted. They quickly abandoned their plans and headed to Dana Point Harbor where they met up with volunteer members of Capt. Dave’s crew, Tom Southern, Mark Tyson and Steve Plantz and headed out in their whale watching boat to see the entangled whale and attempt to help it before it got dark. Continue reading