The Return of Wildlife to the Bay

PEOPLE STARTED NOTICING river otters had returned to the Bay Area around 2012, and apparently, these creatures were heralding a further influx of sea life: for the first time in 65 years, harbor porpoises have also been spotted on the bay side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Now we’re seeing other surprise visitors, including bottlenose dolphins — and, most visibly, humpback whales. Studying this phenomenon is Bill Keener, a project leader at Golden Gate Cetacean Research. That group formed in 2010, but it’s hardly Keener’s first foray into marine biology. Formerly executive director of the Marine Mammal Center, he’s been studying the bay since the 1970s. Keener says he prefers to see the animals in their natural habitat, and lately, he’s had plenty of opportunities: “I saw eight whales inside the bay at one time,” he notes. So why are they here? For one, they’re looking for food; humpbacks feed on krill and schools of fish. But before images of a meandering Humphrey start coming to mind, Keener emphasizes that the whales aren’t lost. “They know what they are doing — they enter during high tide and don’t swim close to shore. They stay in the ‘bowl.’ ” The sightings can also be tracked to conservation efforts: Humpbacks’ numbers have grown on the Pacific Coast, from around 1,400 in 1966 to near 20,000 in 2006. Keener suspects the humpbacks made their way inside the bay during their migration by chance, then realized there is food available here. We’ll find out next year whether the whales remember their new dining spot.

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Cetacean Sensations”.