First Trip for Vessel Watch

Whale Fluke by Laura Wais

Whale Fluke by Laura Wais


The others were out on deck craning their necks at the red underbelly of the Golden Gate Bridge, gazing at seals and sea lions draped over the rocks around Point Bonita, and dreaming of a day full of whales at Farallon Islands. I spent the first full hour of my prep trip for our upcoming Vessel Watch Project wrestling with my computer. Actually, I was doing the very thing one should not do, unless you are trying to get seasick – staring closely and long at a stationary object while our boat rocked and then picked up speed, riding softly bucking waves out to the islands. No worries though; I kept my stomach in place.

The whole point of this trip was to get all the technology glitches worked out before our first trip on August 15. I was trying to get our Automatic Information System (AIS) antenna and receiver to pour real-time data from any near-by ships onto our computer screen. Then, when we encounter any of the thousands of giant ships that drive through the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary to our busy ports we can get the skinny on it, so to speak. The AIS can tell us the ship’s name, destination, ship type, as in cargo or oil tanker, and how fast that ship is traveling through these rich and biodiverse waters. The faster a large ship goes, the noisier it is in the water. Most of the noise is caused by cavitation, created when thousands of tiny bubbles form and burst as the propeller turns. Captain Joe, quite a technology buff himself, turned the wheel over to his deck hand, Steve, and joined me to try his hand at the stubborn computer. Finally, we surrendered to defeat…but just for today. We’ll get this system humming.

Never fear, I had more mechanical toys to test, and unpacked the hydrophone, digital recorder and mini amplifier. I asked Captain Joe if he thought there would be a good time to stop the boat today, as I wanted to lower the hydrophone and see what we could hear. He replied affirmatively in his usual bright tone. Joe is a fisherman transformed by the changes in our oceans, and our depleted fisheries. Now he turns his boat and expertise towards ecotourism and research. Captain Joe and S.F. Bay Whale Watching go beyond ferrying ocean enthusiasts out to find whales. They partner with anyone who needs to get out on a boat to make a positive difference in these waters. Joe conducts water quality sampling for the state, releases rehabilitated seals and sea lions for The Marine Mammal Center, and even turns off the boat so our Marine Sanctuaries Campaign can bring the underwater world of sound up on deck. Our goal is to open ears to the threats of ocean noise pollution facing whales and marine life in the sanctuary.

A wave of questions, “Are we getting close?” and “How much further to the islands?” washed over the boat. A few minutes later Capt. Joe’s voice came overhead reminding passengers that a free t-shirt was the prize for spotting the first whale. We were about five miles out from the islands and in prime whale territory. Seconds later Steve, called out “There she blows!” I caught the faint remnant of a short heart-shaped misty blow. A minute later, directly in front of our boat’s bow, we watched the knuckled back of a grey whale roll into a graceful dive, finished with flukes slipping below the surface.

And then, we saw a lot of nothing. That first-whale excitement gave way to concern as 46 pair of eyes scanned the water in vain. Capt. Joe wondered what kind of activity was happening on a large retrofitted crabbing vessel trolling nearby. Might they be driving the whales away? An older gentleman on his ninth trip out to the islands, the last time six years ago, told me he had never seen it “so dead.” Finally, we turned and drove in for a closer look at the wild Farallon Islands. Trish Mirabelle, our naturalist for the day, captured our attention with stories of egg wars on the islands in centuries past, and the research on birds and white sharks and pinnipeds that has followed for the past 40-some years.

And then, more whales. Humpbacks this time. Three swimming together, flukes over one at a time. We hung around them at a safe distance ooohhing and aahhhing just to see them. Another humpback breached off in the distance. The whales were here, after all! Just as I was getting antsy wondering if we might get the chance to hear these magnificent creatures, as well as see them, I heard the sound I was waiting for – quiet! Joe had cut motor.

I was already lowering the hydrophone over the side when Trish came to tell me we were stopped for a listen. I turned on the little amplifier and hit the red record button. The relative quiet on board was replaced by sound pouring out of the little box. Passengers gathered around. We could hear the water slap, slap, slapping against the metal hull, and lots of crackling in the background – the tell tail sounds of snapping shrimp. And then, we heard them. Whoop, whoop, whoop… Nobody spoke. We just turned wide-eyed at each other and mouthed the word WOW! For thirteen minutes we floated while whales swam, dove, and fed all around us. Intermittently we heard squeaks, moans and gulping sounds. Three whales turned into seven or eight and they seemed content to swim around our floating boat, sometimes quite close. I couldn’t help wondering if turning off our own noisy motor gave the whales a chance for a closer look at us. Our nine-trip veteran said he had never seen so many whales ever before.

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