San Francisco Trip: Day 3

(Mary Beth)

Whale Watching with San Francisco Whale Tours

Day 3, Sunday, 10/23/11

(Written at 7:30 A.M. on Monday, 10/24/11)

Yesterday, we went whale watching. This and the Alcatraz tour were the two activities I had been sure to reserve even before we ever left Kansas City. It was funny; when I read the reviews for the whale watching, everyone either gave the trip and company a huge 5 stars, or they gave it 1 star. The determining factor in each case was numbers of vomiting, seasick customers on the excursion. 🙂

Needless to say, Craig and I went hopped up on Dramamine. Less drowsy formula. I took my extra Dramamine with me just in case other passengers showed up unprepared.

When we arrived, Victoria — biologist and deck hand — greeted us with two questions: Did you take seasickness medication? And, did you bring food and water?

Thank you. What is UP with people? Here is a person giving you evvvvvvery opportunity to NOT screw up your day! And, yet, STILL, there were a handful of people who did not take seasickness medication. I only became aware of one girl, though, who was ill. She was apparently miserable for the entire 6 hours, which I simply cannot fathom. Ridiculous! Before we left, addressing ALL of the passengers to give us a briefing, Victoria pointed out that I and one other passenger had extra Dramamine with us and were willing to share. I gave pills to two different ladies. So, for me, there was just no excuse for getting sick.

Now, about whale watching…

I went into this knowing that it was entirely possible we would return to the mainland having seen little more than a dolphin or a seal. I had prepared myself that even if I just got a six-hour boat ride out to the Farallon Islands on an exceptionally beautiful and temperate October day, that would be “enough,” which it was. But, we were SO not disappointed! During our day, we saw a gray whale, about a half dozen humpback whales (including 3 traveling together), harbor porpoises and harbor seals, and sea lions. Wahoo!

It was fun. It wasn’t fun like riding a roller coaster is fun. It was fun like catching fish is fun. There’s a LOT of waiting and patience involved between sitings, and it’s not like you are getting to see the whole whale each time it surfaces… This is no dramatic Free Willy, you know? Still. It is truly amazing to have the opportunity to be so close to these enormous, magical creatures and to occasionally steal a glimpse of them. I had an awesome time, and I would recommend the experience to others.

If you watch the video Craig posted, you will get a good idea of what it was like.

Below, I will give more details of our day. The “play-by-play” if you will. This is likely to be boring and is mostly for ME. So, read at risk of boredom! 🙂

We met at the booth for San Francisco Whale Watching Tours at 7:40 or so. We used the restroom, grabbed a tasty coffee from the coffee shop next door to SFWW, and used the restroom. By then, everyone had pretty much arrived. Victoria gave us a briefing about how the day would go. At that time, and all day long, Victoria made it so very clear that she just loves her job. I LOVE that characteristic in a person! How fun to be around someone who loves to share their passion with others. We all walked down to the boat together, and we received a briefing from Captain Tom.

Captain Tom was probably our age (40-ish), or possibly even a bit younger. Like Victoria, it became very clear that whales and maintaining a healthy, unpolluted ocean environment were very important to Tom. All day, from both Victoria and Tom, it was really emphasized to us how important it is to take care of the ocean environment. And, yes, as I had read prior to the trip, Tom was sure to stop to scoop up every bit of trash (or “rubbish”) that was spotted along our route. By day’s end, 12 partially-inflated balloons attached to ribbon and one kid’s marine-themed sleeping bag had been snatched out of the ocean. All of this trash was spotted in the water very near the Golden Gate Bridge, meaning it was closer in to the mainland. All of the stopping was a bit annoying. Yes, I do understand and support the idea of leaving things even better than you found them. Definitely. It was just a bit laughable. Each time we stopped, Victoria would yell, “More balloons!” And, Craig would say to me, “Kit Kat wrapper!” or “butterscotch wrapper!”

After Tom’s briefing, Victoria introduced her husband, Matt, and their good friend, Jason, who both work for the Bay Aquarium (also in Fisherman’s Wharf). They had come along on a Sunday in hopes of seeing some great white sharks. Whoa! That made the trip seem even more exciting. I didn’t know if we would spot any great whites (we didn’t), but I suddenly felt even better that we would see SOMETHING. “Hey, the friends and family came along — this should be a good day,” I thought.

It took us about an hour and a half to reach the first island of the Farallon chain. We began slowly circumnavigating the island, and Victoria gave us the skinny about the Farallons. (Victoria, mind you, is a small, pretty, 20-something lady with a HUGE voice. OMG. No problem hearing Victoria!) We learned that the Farallons are protected as a coveted National Wilderness Area (a very rare distinction), which means the ONLY humans allowed to step foot on the islands are working for the government. Victoria explained that if they are on the Farallons, they are biologists who are conducting animal research — mostly about birds. There are hundreds and hundreds of bird species who call the Farallons home.

Victoria didn’t get all the way through her spiel before we spotted the blow (or “spray”) of a gray whale. SO EXCITING! Captain Tom stayed a good distance away from the whale (the law says we must stay 100 yards away), but we followed the whale for probably half an hour as it circled the island. There were one or two other whale watching vessels who joined us (including one that did not abide by the 100-yard rule) — not cool, which Victoria and Tom pointed out gently. The experience of seeing and following a whale is neat. Like I said before, you must have some patience. When the whale surfaces, you HEAR it before you SEE it. 🙂 Each time a whale (or, heck, any other animal) would surface, Victoria would whoop and holler (she gave us fair warning about this before we ever left). I heard her friend, Jason, making fun of her one time, and she said, “Wait until I see a great white; my head actually pops off!” LOL It was good, actually, because lots of the passengers got excited, too, and most were helpful in trying to point out sitings to others. (But, some passengers were completely quiet and not at all enthusiastic or helpful to others. cough cough CRAIG HOPE cough cough … chuckle.)

After the gray whale finally eluded us, Victoria explained a bit more about the Farallons. They are smelly because of all the bird and seal poop. Um UNDERSTATEMENT, as it turns out. When we got downwind of the island?? NASTY!!!!! Just smelled like steaming, simmering poo. G-ross. There are tons of mice on the island, which is a problem, apparently, that biologists are trying to figure out. They don’t know how to get rid of the mice without endangering the birds. There are also tons and tons of flies. On a less windy day, the flies plague the whale boat and passengers all the way back to the mainland. Ick. Glad for the breeze, I was!

Next, we headed farther west toward other islands in the chain. We spent the brunt of our time in a wide open area where we spotted the 6 or so humpbacks. My first humpback siting was probably my best “siting” of the day because he flipped and I actually got a great glimpse of his tail! SO AMAZING! I was so excited, I made the dude next to me give me a high five (which he readily did – so funny).

My second favorite experience of the day was when we saw 3 humpbacks traveling together. They totally went under our boat. Well, that’s what I am telling myself. All I really know is that one minute they were on the starboard side, and the next moment they were on the port side. Pretty cool, huh? The video Craig got is of this time… again, we probably spent 30 to 40 minutes in that area, and saw several humpbacks.

After that, we headed back toward the mainland. On the way back, we saw seals or sea lions sunning on the buoys near the GG Bridge… so cute! Little lazy buggers. We also saw the harbor porpoises on the way out and back. (They are like dolphins, but are smaller and don’t have the “beak” nose.)

Nearly everyone (including Craig and I) napped much of the way home, and Victoria said that’s how it is every time. It’s sort of like being on an airplane — what else are you gonna do for a two-hour boat ride? (Plus, when you add in the Dramamine…)

Overall, great day and great experience.

We stopped for a beer at a bar at Fisherman’s Wharf so we could watch the Chiefs vs. Raiders (in Oakland) game. We didn’t stay long; amazing as it sounds, the Chiefs were pummeling the Raiders, and the bartender changed the channel for some St. Louis fans (boo) when the score was Chiefs 28 to Raiders 0. We came back to our hotel and had a two-hour nap.

Then, we got up and walked down to a tiny, adorable Italian Bistro. It was a lot like our favorite Cayman restaurant — Edoardo’s, but much, much, MUCH smaller! We were one of 3 tables when we arrived, and no one came after us. There were probably a total of 10 tables in the entire place. Very small. Our dinner was delicious. Craig had Gorganzola pasta (creamy, fatty goodness!) and I had penne puttanesca, hold the anchovies. Pretty good. The tiramisu was DELISH. Cute place, great food.

Today, I am 99 percent sure we are going to rent a car and head up to the wine country. We have lots of recommendations from friends, so it should be a fun day. Looking forward to seeing some pretty landscapes.

Gosh, I am SO glad we came here for my birthday. The weather has been absolutely PERFECT. The natives are sure to tell us it’s not always like this. We have really been fortunate. It’s been sunny and warm every day. SO BEAUTIFUL!



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