On a normal day leading whale watching tours from San Francisco, Captain Joe Nazar of San Francisco Whale Tours would travel more than two hours and a couple dozen miles to the Farallon Islands to encounter the leviathans, lumbering along their migration routes.
But on Monday morning, travelers aboard the Kitty Kat had scarcely finished snapping pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge when the cry came.
“As soon as I heard ‘thar she blows’ from one of the passengers, I just kind of looked in disbelief,” said Nazar, who’s run San Francisco Whale Tours since 1984.
The boat was only about a quarter-mile outside the bay when it came upon what would be the first of many humpback sightings.
“Next thing you know I kind of slowed the boat down and there were humpbacks everywhere,” said Nazar.
Nazar said his tours occasionally spot gray whales traveling close to shore during their migration. But spotting humpbacks lumbering so close to the bay was so unusual, even crew members were craning their necks to watch the action.
“We get to go out here every day and see these animals and sometimes it’s such a long journey in a beautiful place,” said tour marine biologist Victoria Jensen. “But for us to get to see them right outside the bridge is just phenomenal.”
Immediately after spotting the giants, Nazar alerted the Coast Guard to the whales, which then issued a warning to vessels traveling in the area. A Coast Guard spokeswoman said despite the whales’ presence in commercial shipping lanes, the agency doesn’t alter the course of ships because of whale sightings.
Jensen speculated the whales had traveled unusually close to the bay to feed.
“We imagine they’re feeding on fish,” said Jensen, “schooling fish that are feeding near the entrance to the bay where there’s steeper water and several currents and channels that converge here.”
Nazar, who logs every whale sighting, said he couldn’t ever remember humpback whales coming so close to the mouth of the bay.
“It’s absolutely amazing and it’s an experience that I’ll never forget,” said Nazar.
For several hours, passengers excitedly snapped pictures of the whales with the Golden Gate Bridge providing a rare backdrop.
Monie Russo and her husband traveled from Pensacola, Florida to see whales, not knowing they’d get to get skip the long ride and potential sea sickness for the experience.
“I may not have got pictures but it’s in my mind to the rest of my life,” said Russo.
Just as Nazar grabbed his microphone to announce the tour was headed back to shore, a humpback broke the water in the near distance, flapping his massive tail before diving out of sight.
“At the very end they waved goodbye and we saw the tail flip out of the water,” said Russo. “And that was worth a million dollars.”