I was paddling through kelp just outside the breakwater in Half Moon bay when I heard something breathe, but it was an unusual sound. It was not a place I expected to hear a seal, so I stopped and tried to find the animal. I heard it a few more times but was unable to locate the source. This was perplexing, sea lions or harbor seals, the only suspects, are easy to find. I gave up after a few minutes and headed out to Maverick’s, it was a fairly flat day and I wanted to poke around the offshore rocks.
As I was returning to the harbor I swung wide past the entrance and wandered down the breakwater towards Surfer’s beach I heard it again, this time about half a mile from the kelp beds. It was close to me, but it did not sound like a seal or a sea lion, or even an otter. It reminded me of a free diver clearing his lungs through his snorkel after a deep dive. It was a distinctive sound I’d never heard on the water, short and sharp, a puff and draw. Now I was in flat water with no wind and no kelp to hide objects on the surface, so again I started to search for the source.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw one, then a second small, short, triangular black dorsal fin just break the surface and disappear.
Harbor porpoises, a very rare sight! Over the next thirty minutes I was able to watch the pod, it was at least 5 strong, mostly in pairs, they silently patrolled back and forth in 200 meter paths at the harbor’s entrance. I don’t think they realized I was there; they avoided two sailboats heading to sea but swam right past me a couple of times.
They are not very photogenic, they don’t often breach or tail slap, but it was great to see them and take a few pictures. Once common in San Francisco bay, pollution drove them away after WWII. Until recently they have been sighted only rarely, but they are now making a comeback. By nature they are very shy, something all coastal marine mammals have learned- avoid boats and people and you will live longer. They were nicknamed ‘puffing pigs’ by sailors centuries ago, because of the unique sound of their breathing.
I’ve seen them three times since. Once from a kayak in Drakes bay, just off the beach in front of the visitors center. On that occasion I only saw one surfacing cycle, despite perfect conditions- flat water and no wind- even after fifteen minutes of searching they did not reappear. I’ve seen them from whale watch boats, in Monterey and Bodega bay. I’m told they are often seen from the deck of the Golden Gate bridge, if you know what to look for. There is a a group of researchers studying them, and they appreciate hearing about confirmable sightings.
The only other local cetacean you could confuse with a harbor porpoise is a Dall’s
porpoise, they are about the same size, but are usually seen in open water, move fast and have dorsals that are more triangular and often have light markings, as seen here.