Whale Watching and Future Suffering

My first time under the Golden Gate Bridge was in a 16-foot tandem kayak with Cheryl. We were early adopters of Groupon and snagged a 2-for-1 Bay Bridge to Golden Gate Bridge guided kayak tour. We were somewhat experienced kayakers from classes on the Roaring Fork River in Aspen. Others in the group obviously were not.

The paddle towards the iconic bridge started with a gentle glide across slack water in between tides. The day ended with the group sucked out to sea under the Golden Gate by the ebb tide. Our guides in their Zodiac towed kayaks one by one back into the Bay. Since we were “experienced,” we were left to last. As the others were rescued, we managed to beat the ebb flow and paddle to the beach at Chrissy Field where the whole group abandoned ship, too tired to paddle any farther.

On the last day of August, we crossed under the Golden Gate a second time aboard the Kitty Kat, a 65-foot catamaran. We were in search of whales on our way to the Farallon Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The Farallons are the above-water tips of sea mounts 26 to 32 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge. They are perched on the edge of the continental shelf before it plunges 6,000 feet to the ocean floor.

Rich upwells of plankton from those depths attract krill that provide the basic staple for fish and whales. Summer and fall bring blue whales and humpback whales to feed on the krill around the Farallons. Spotting one of these giants up close is the reason for the trip. I’ve witnessed offshore spouts along California's coast during the annual migrations, and once a spectacular 10-minute display of breaches and fluke flops from the 12th hole of the Plantation Course on Maui. But, I’ve not been on a dedicated whale tour nor taken a boat to offshore islands such as the Farallons.

I now understand why. I’m a Sagittarius, not an Aquarius. Watching whales from a stationary shoreline is one thing. Watching from a boat that bobs cork-like on ocean swells leads to future suffering. Fortunately, I did not donate breakfast to whatever fish were below, but I came close in the seven hours on the water.

We passed the Golden Gate against the tide so the ride did not begin smoothly. Once outside, the ocean swells increased and the roller coaster effect began. We spotted our first whale shortly afterwards and the chase was on. Boats are prohibited within 100 yards of any whale, so Captain Bob would motor to where the whale might resurface and then idle in the swell. The rocking and occasional whiff of diesel fumes were not good to me.

After half an hour of cat–and-mouse with three humpbacks, Captain Bob said it was time to set course for the Farallons. The rolling motion was replaced with breaches through the incoming swells. Only 26 miles across the sea to the Southeast Farallon Island, the trip took forrrrrever. I hung to the port rail the whole way facing the cool breeze to ease my stomach. I looked towards the stern once as San Francisco receded on the horizon, but could only focus on the two young women contributing to the world’s rising sea levels. There but for the grace of Dramamine go I.

Captain Bob apologized for the rough ride out and said we would spend our time on the lee of the islands to avoid rough waters. What he didn’t mention, and didn’t have to, was the odor you could smell a mile away. The Farallons encompass the largest bird sanctuary, some 250,000 strong, in the continental US. Coupled with a large population of seals and sea lions who haul themselves on the rocks to sun, and you have the largest guano factory in the continental US. If not for the Camino buff covering my nose to cut the stench, I would have joined the young women at the stern rail.

The ride back was a relief. I don’t know if it was another Dramamine or sailing with the swell, but I felt normal once back at the dock. The experience was not the best or worst on my List of 65, but it did provide highlights to remember. Disclosure: The photos are not mine. I was too ill at ease to watch and photograph.

First, were Tufted Puffins; cute sea birds with an bright orange beak and yellow tufts along their head. The worldwide population of this endangered spcies is estimated at 4,000. We were lucky to see 4 of them floating on the water.

Second, watching humpback whales blow spouts from a boat and not the shore. With seemingly no effort, their 50-ton bodies belie the grace of movement under water.

And, third, Cheryl did not get sick. I’ve seen her get queasy in planes trains and automobiles. But, following good Buddhist practice, she avoided future suffering with two early Dramamine. I followed bad Buddhist practice and waited for future suffering to begn before taking a pill.

Read Cheryl's post called Whales and a Barf Bag in her weekly column here.

Note to my Camino friends:

On July 24, 1579, English privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake landed on the islands to provision his ship with seal meat and bird eggs. He was not the first European to land, but renamed them anyway the Islands of St James in true British imperialism fashion to commemorate the feast day of St James the Great.


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