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Whales making more appearances in the Bay but local whale tours struggling to operate

SF whale tours struggling to operate despite more appearances from whales
SF whale tours struggling to operate despite more appearances from whales 03:10

Endangered humpback whales are making cameos in the Bay one after the next, but, despite their presence, local whale tours are struggling to operate.

"This year has been excellent in whale sightings," said Captain Joe Nazar of San Francisco Whale Tours.

Nazar doesn't have to navigate his boat Kitty Kat very far from Pier 39 these days to find the gentle giants. Whale tours are spotting plenty of humpbacks near the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Years ago, a lengthier day-long trek to the Farallon Islands would be needed to cross paths with the majestic marine mammals.

"It's so awesome to see everything all around us," said photographer Steven Samp Puras.  

"The whole experience is to connect people with whales and show them there are beautiful mammals here out of a metropolitan city that we live in San Francisco," added Nazar. 

It's not just the whale tourism industry making these observations. The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito regularly conducts surveillance from onshore and by boat.

Bekah Lane, a whale biologist, explains what is behind the whales' appearances.

"As sea surface temperatures rise, in-shore populations of fish like anchovies seem to increase," said Lane.

That's one of the reasons marine biologists say Humpback whale sightings closer to shore are happening in recent years.

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

Near guaranteed whale sightings would seem like a boon to SF Whale Tours. But their fleet is down to one boat from three. On a good day pre-COVID, they could bring hundreds out to sea.

Now, the number of passengers is only about a dozen.

"The business can't sustain itself. We are very close to that time," said Nazar.

However, Nazar and his crew exude positivity. They're showing customers how Mother Nature is moving in ways to bring these majestic creatures so close to the Bay Area. 

"It never gets old seeing a whale no matter how many I see every single day.  It's always amazing to be in the presence of such an amazing animal," said SF Whale Tours Naturalist Sophie Belair.

SF Whale Tours said it has had whale sightings 97 out of every 100 trips this season, and if you don't see one, you ride free until you do.

The only unknown now is when all the tourists will return to the city by the bay. 

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

The Marine Mammal Center wants to remind recreational boaters to stay 100 yards away from the protected and endangered whales.

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