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Whales appear more frequently in the bay, but local whale watching tours are struggling to operate

Endangered humpback whales make cameos in the bay one after another, but despite their presence, local whale watching tours are having a hard time operating.

“This year has been outstanding in whale sightings,” said Captain Joe Nazar of San Francisco Whale Tours.

Nazar doesn’t have to navigate his boat Kitty Kat far from Pier 39 these days to find the gentle giants. Whale watching tours spot many humpback whales near the Golden Gate Bridge.

Years ago, a longer day trip to the Farallon Islands would have been necessary to encounter the majestic marine mammals.

“It’s so amazing to see everything around us,” says photographer Steven Samp Puras.

“The whole experience is connecting people with whales and showing them that there are beautiful mammals here from a metropolitan city where we live in San Francisco,” Nazar added.

It’s not just the whale watching industry making these sightings. The marine mammal center in Sausalito conducts regular surveillance from land and boat.

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Bekah Lane, a whale biologist, explains what’s behind the whales’ appearance.

“As sea surface temperatures rise, coastal populations of fish such as anchovies appear to be increasing,” Lane said.

That’s one of the reasons marine biologists say humpback whale sightings have been happening closer to shore in recent years.

“The whales will follow that food source. In years when the water is colder, their alternative prey, which is krill, seems to increase offshore in those colder waters, and they will follow their prey at that time,” Lane said.

Almost guaranteed whale sightings seem like a boon for SF Whale Tours. But their fleet has only one of the three boats left. On a good day before COVID, they could take hundreds out to sea.

Now the number of passengers is only about a dozen.

“The company cannot support itself. We are very close to that time,” said Nazar.

However, Nazar and his crew exude positivity. They show customers how Mother Nature moves to bring these majestic creatures so close to the Bay Area.

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“It never gets old to see a whale, no matter how many I see every day. It’s always wonderful to be in the presence of such an amazing animal,” says Sophie Belair, naturalist for SF Whale Tours.

SF Whale Tours said it’s had whale sightings on 97 out of 100 trips this season, and if you don’t see one, you’re free riding until you do.

The only thing that is still unknown is when all tourists will return to the city by the bay.

Marine biologists say the best time to see humpback whales in the Bay Area is one to two hours before or after high tide.

The Marine Mammal Center would like to remind recreational boaters to stay 100 meters away from the protected and endangered whales.

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