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Watch Out for Whales in the Bay

By Scott Morris (BCN)
Friday March 09, 2012 - 04:24:00 PM

At least one gray whale was spotted in San Francisco Bay near Alcatraz Island again today, and the U.S. Coast Guard is alerting boaters of the location of whales so that mariners can steer clear, a Coast Guard officer said.

There have been several whale sightings in the Bay over the last several days, including a mother and a young calf, as whales are migrating from breeding areas near Mexico to feeding areas near Alaska, officials from the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary said.

This morning at least one gray whale has been seen near Blossom Rock, a submerged rock near Yerba Buena Island. 

"Our vessel trafficking service has issued an active broadcast warning mariners to keep a close eye out for the whales in certain locations," including Blossom Rock, Coast Guard Officer Mark Leahey said. 

According to federal law, boaters must stay 50 yards or more away from whales, as collisions could be disastrous for both the whales and the boats, officials said. 

While the Coast Guard is not actively following whales to enforce this, if they receive reports of harassment or boats getting too close to the whales, they would respond to enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Leahey said. 

Boaters approaching or bothering whales could be arrested and subject to criminal penalties of up to $20,000, Leahey said. 

In the most recent sightings, however, this has not yet been necessary. 

"As of now we have not gotten any reports of any abuse or harassment," Leahey said. 

Bay Area residents may see more whales throughout the spring, as San Francisco Bay and some of the more shallow surrounding waters are a frequent resting point for whales making the long 6,000 mile migration from Mexico to Alaska, marine sanctuary spokeswoman Mary Jane Schramm said. 

While not much of a whale is usually visible on the surface, whales can be spotted by their blow, which looks like a puff of smoke about 10 to 15 feet high. Whales will blow several times before diving for three to six minutes, Schramm said. 

She said that mothers with young calves can be particularly vulnerable to boaters, because if the mother and calf are separated, the calf would starve. 

Schramm recommended that anyone who wants a close encounter with a whale go on a whale-watching trip with a captain who knows how to navigate near whales and a naturalist to explain whale behavior. 

In addition, anyone looking to learn more about whales and marine life could also visit the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, which began Thursday night and will last through Sunday. 

The festival is being held at the Bay Theater on Pier 39, next to the Aquarium of the Bay, and includes films on sharks, surfing, ocean exploration and ocean sports like sailing. 

A schedule of films and events can be found at