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February 2004

The Farallone Islands are the main attraction for many who come on Gulf of Farallones Expeditions tour (Image from
A Whale of a Trip

By Lydia N. Dalloway

To See What They Can See
They come to Sausalito from as far away as Europe and as near as Novato, San Francisco, Tiburon, or, well, Sausalito, to Gulf of the Farallones Expeditions to catch a boat leaving the dock at 7 a.m.

What compels a person to leave their warm bed on a weekend morning before it’s even light out, to take an average of an hour’s drive in the dark and cold? These adventurers want to experience an expedition to the Farallon Islands, to get up close and personal with the Pacific Ocean, to view the California scenery from the sea, and hopefully to see whales, sharks, dolphins, porpoises, and other marine life.

Gulf of Farallones Expeditions helps ordinary people have a real Discovery Channel experience (Image from

A Six-Hour Tour
However daunting, not even the thought of sea-sickness deters passengers bent on having an experience of a lifetime. Though its efficacy may only be myth, Gulf of the Farallones Expeditions offers ginger ale with real ginger to its passengers as a remedy for nausea that some may otherwise experience. After leaving the docks at 7 a.m. and once past the “Potato Patch,” a short strip just between the Golden Gate Bridge and Point Bonita known to be the roughest spot, most passengers are in for smooth sailing for the rest of their trip.

On board the 50-foot boat, passengers have their choice of front row seats. They can either stand by the railing or atop the captain’s deck at the bow of the boat, seek shelter from spray during the choppy period inside the cabin or captain’s perch, sit on a bench or by the railing at the spacious stern, or hover along the side of the boat allowing just enough space for someone to walk past them.

Personal Accounts of the Experience
Santa Rosa residents, Sandy Jones and her husband, were first inspired by seeing whales at Marine World in Redwood City. Mrs. Jones, who is retired, said that she was determined to see the graceful creatures in their own habitat. A previous whale-watching trip in Southern California had proven fruitless; however, their day with Gulf of the Farallones Expeditions more than met her expectations, with several whales surfacing during the trip out to the Farallone Islands and several more during the circuit of the island.

Mrs. Jones said, “I couldn’t get enough of it. My husband loved it, too. It was so much fun talking to the people because everyone was excited.” When asked if she would go again, she said, “In a heartbeat.”

Becky Hinderlie, of Fremont, had a different goal in mind. She had always wanted to see the Farallon Islands. Coming from a family that grew up sailing, it was only natural for her to take along a big group of family and friends, including her husband and a niece who got school credit for reporting what she’d learned on the trip.

It’s no wonder that the Farallone Islands reminded Mrs. Hinderlie of Hawaii. Their tour date, in October, shone bright and hot. She said that no one was sitting inside the cabin because it was such a gorgeous day; some people were even wearing tank tops. Apart from lots of seals and other marine life, she remembered seeing quite a few humpback whales. “We spent about an hour circling the islands, but [the boat was going] so slowly that you don’t realize you’re going around the island,” she said. She was happy with the photos she took on her trip and wants to go on another boat tour soon, to a different destination.

Playing Hide-and-Seek with Marine Animals
When asked to name the largest creature that’s ever roamed the earth, most people might guess the dinosaur. However, whales grow up to three times larger than the largest dinosaur that ever lived; the tongue of a whale can weigh as much as a full-grown elephant. How these creatures manage to successfully play hide-and-seek can only be explained by the contrasting immensity of the ocean.

Passengers on Gulf of Farallones Expeditions come equipped with binoculars and cameras (Image from

Passengers provide the many eyes needed for this big game hunt of hide-and-seek. Fortunately, the boat’s crew is familiar with the favorite hiding places of the whales and steers the boat toward the whale’s migration pattern, either near the Farallone Islands or, in case of choppy weather, toward the neighboring shoreline of Point Reyes. The Farallone Islands have very few humans on them and are a safe haven to 37 types of endangered species, 13 species of breeding sea birds, and a popular migrating stop for many types of whales and sharks.

People on the boat spotting live action in the water can alert their fellow passengers of the sighting using a “clock” system, with the prow of the boat being 12 o’clock and the stern being 6 o’clock. “Harbor porpoises at 1 o’clock,” an excited passenger might shout, compelling binoculars and cameras to point toward the right front side of the boat.

Points of Interest
Gulf of the Farallones Expeditions gives full disclosure: you are only “guaranteed” to see the Golden Gate Bridge on any given trip. Some tours may have 20 sightings of whales and others have none. The only way to be sure to see marine life is to venture out multiple times, which is why Gulf of the Farallones Expeditions may soon be offering a special “series” pass, allowing the bearer to sign up for several outings at a discount price.

Lighthouses are a scenic and historical part of the Gulf of Farallones Expeditions tour (Image from

But, don’t despair if time or money only allows you to go out once, because the points of interest along the way are rich in California history. Gulf of the Farallones Expeditions usually has a naturalist on hand to provide educational talks about the California coast and its inhabitants.

Doreen Moser, who has 14 years of experience as an interpretive biologist on whale-watching tours, has been working with Gulf of the Farallones Expeditions for the past couple of months, giving one-on-one talks throughout the boat. As she sees it, her job is to show people how marine mammals and other coastal phenomenon are relevant to their lives.

“You’re it!” This whale got caught in a big game hunt of hide-and-seek Photo by: John Rochat

“The most interesting part of the job,” she said, “is being out there and not knowing what you’re going to see. Every trip is different. Also, for many people, this is the first whale they’ve ever seen.” She enjoys seeing their excitement and expressions of awe when the whales surface and being there to spot “little things” for people when whales are winning at the game of hide-and-seek. Commenting on tourists from around the world who come to experience whale-watching, she said, “It’s surprising that more people don’t take advantage of the opportunities in their own back yard. I would encourage people to get out there.”


Don’t Miss the Boat!
Most trips leave at 7 a.m. and return around 1 or 2 p.m. Fortunately, passengers aren’t restrained by time of the year, because there’s ocean life to observe all year round near the Farallone Islands and Point Reyes, west of San Francisco. Here’s a schedule of migration patterns showing what you might see:

Year Round Pacific White-sided dolphin, harbor porpoises
July through October Blue Whales
November through March Humpback Whales
December through May Gray Whales
March through July Breeding Sea Birds
May through June Renegade whales, other marine life
  What am I seeing?
Distinguishing characteristics of whales:

Blue Whales have a U-shaped head:
· travel alone or in pairs
· blow up to 20 feet
· dive under for 10 or 20 minutes before surfacing
· may blow 8 to 15 times, making shallow dives at 12 to 15 seconds between blows and before surfacing

Illustration by Pieter Folkens

Humpback Whales have a flat head and flippers up to 15 feet long:
· average 45 feet long
· black body, white black or mottled undersides and white or black flippers
· humped back in front of the dorsal fin gives the whale its name

Illustration by Pieter Folkens

Gray Whales have barnacles and whale lice embedded in their skin:
· reach lengths of 52 feet
· its spout looks heart-shaped when viewed from behind

Illustration by Pieter Folkens

Sperm Whales (rarely seen) have a huge square head:
· have a low blow up to eight feet and forward
· corrugations on skin gives shriveled appearance
· dark brown or gray in color
· measure up to 50 feet long

Other common marine animals on display in the Pacific Ocean include harbor porpoises, dolphins, sea lions, seals, and a wide variety of birds.

Call 415-331-3804 to reserve your spot for
Gulf of the Farallones Expeditions!
See web site for schedule and