Boaters warned to watch for whales in record numbers along SF’s coast

A pair of humpback whales lunge feeding (Courtesy Cornelia Oedekoven/NOAA)
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Biologists stationed in a Farallon Islands lighthouse were able to spot what could be a record number of whales feasting and frolicking off the coast of San Francisco in one hour last weekend, counting a total 115 of the endangered mammals.

“I have never heard of any higher numbers than that,” said Mary Jane Schramm of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, noting there were 93 humpback whales, 21 blue whales and a fin whale sighted last Saturday.

Though less whales are being spotted on San Francisco’s coast with each passing day, researchers are still worried whales traversing shipping lanes in large pods near The City could be struck by vessels.

The marine sanctuary is asking boaters to be on alert for whales.

Alongside federal guidelines that suggest all boats stay 300 feet away from whales, the marine sanctuary and U.S. Coast Guard are requesting large ships slow down to speeds under 10 knots from Point Reyes to the Farallon Islands to Point Año Nuevo.

“We’ve been very concerned about these reports of small boats going out,” Schramm said. “There’s the threat of ship strike from larger vessels, so we’ve [also] called for that voluntary speed reduction.”

Instead, Schramm suggests potential whale watchers looking for a spectacle can view the enormous creatures from the shoreline.

“There’s so many whales that are visible from land, you can just go to Lands’ End and see them from there,” she said. “It’s for the animals’ safety but it’s also for the boater’s safety.”

Whales are susceptible to great injury, and even death, when they collide with vessels. In addition, Schramm said small boaters risk life-threatening injury when coming into close contact with whales, which could flop onto a boat and sink it.

Since late spring, the marine sanctuary has recorded large numbers of whales navigating the coast of San Francisco, with numbers peaking Saturday. Researchers expect whales will be there en masse through the end of July.

Schramm said the numerous whales are along the coast for the unusually copious amounts of food.

“There’s apparently a huge amount of krill off the coast of San Francisco, near the Farallon Islands,” said Schramm, noting that blue whales are picky eaters who opt only for krill, consuming sometimes four tons of krill each a day.

“It’s like a thick rich organic soup out there right now,” she said.

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