Exciting Encounters at SST Point!
May 27, 2021
One of the most exciting aspects of our daily weather observations that take place midday every day is heading towards East Landing to record Sea Surface Temperature (SST) and to collect salinity samples at the aptly named SST Point. While a seemingly straightforward procedure, the position of the point past the landing with the potential for large dangerous waves to appear suddenly makes this activity among the most hazardous of our daily errands. Research assistants must check in with the PRBO house with a marine radio before and after going to the point, and must equip a lifejacket with a harness as a safety precaution while at the point, and cannot perform these measurements on days when sea conditions are unsafe.
Once all safety measures are met, research assistants are treated to a fantastic view of the southeastern side of the island, as well as an unspoiled view of the Pacific Ocean, stretching endlessly to the west. One must not be too distracted by the beautiful scenery, however, as researchers must be prompt and attentive while recording temperature data and collecting salinity samples accurately. Both are performed using the SST bucket! While tethered to the carabiner attached to the rock, the bucket is cast into the water, where it is let to float just beneath the sea surface for a minute or two to allow the bucket to reach the same temperature as the water. The bucket is then dragged back up, dumped, and then cast back into the sea, where it is then quickly retrieved. A special thermometer is then used to record temperature, and a salinity sample is collected in a small glass bottle for analysis on the mainland. Both measurements aid in providing crucial data about long-term trends in oceanic ecosystems. For example, despite an overall trend of oceanic warming due to climate change, recent SST temperatures have been considerably cooler than average due to La Nina, a complex oceanic-atmospheric phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean that results in cooler sea temperatures worldwide.
But SST Point isn’t just a good location to collect important physical data- it’s also a fantastic place to see wildlife! Many breeding seabirds and shorebirds frequent the rocks and waters near the point, including Pelagic Cormorants, Black Turnstones, Pigeon Guillemots, Common Murres and Rhinoceros Auklets, in addition to migratory birds like Pacific Loons, Red-necked Phalaropes and Eared Grebes. But SST Point is also a fantastic place to observe resident and migratory marine mammals!
Numerous species of pinniped (seals and sea lions) are commonly seen around the point, including harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) and northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) which commonly haul out on the rocks near the point, as well as on the beaches of nearby Garbage Gulch. Steller’s sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) are sometimes swimming in the water, but by far the most common pinnipeds seen at SST Point are California sea lions (Zalophus californianus). With a population of nearly 10,000 individuals on the Farallons, California sea lions are by far the most common species of sea mammal to be found here on Southeast Farallon Island during the summer, and can easily be found on the shorelines and along the entire island. When hauled out on land, however, they are very wary and skittish of humans, usually fleeing from approaching researchers even at a considerable distance. When they’re in the water, however, they are generally not so anxious of our presence, and often express curiosity towards our research activities and the tools we use. Take for example our trusty aforementioned SST bucket!
One day, while a research assistant was recording SST, a group of sea lions came around the point and began playing with it! You can see for yourself in the video below:
Keep in mind, at no point do we ever deliberately try to attract sea mammals towards us, but it is incredibly exciting when we get to see them behaving with such curiosity and playful disposition.
Pinnipeds aren’t the only marine mammals to be observed at SST Point though- it is also an amazing place to see gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus)! These behemoths can weigh up to 60,000 pounds and measure up to 50 feet in length, and yet are still only considered mid-sized among the baleen whales (Mysticeti), which includes other whale species such as the iconic humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) and the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), the latter being the largest animal to have ever existed. Gray whales do, however, hold the title of undertaking the longest recorded migration of any mammal species, travelling upwards of 12,000 miles roundtrip each year from their summer feeding waters in the Arctic to their winter breeding waters off the coast of Mexico. This is witnessed each year here on Southeast Farallon Island when dozens of whales pass by the island on their journey northward in late March and early April. However, a small number of gray whales do not migrate, and are residents in the waters surrounding the island year-round! These intelligent and curious resident gray whales are an almost daily sight from almost any location on the island, but one would be hard pressed to find a better spot to see them than SST Point. Here they often come to scratch their immense bodies on the rocks in the shallows of Garbage Gulch to rid themselves of ectoparasites, and often pass within very close proximity to the point. Here’s a video of on such instance where that took place!
Gray whales were once hunted to near extinction, but with strict laws and regulations including the banning commercial whaling, the creation of protected marine reserves, and alerting cargo ships and shipping vessels to their presence and movements, these magnificent animals have made an extraordinary rebound. While there are a multitude of places along the West Coast to see gray whales from shore, in addition to many whale-watching vessels from which gray whales can be observed at sea, those who have had the opportunity to see them here on SEFI will say that SST Point might just be the best place to see them in the entire world.
At this precipice of the island that brings one so near to the vast Pacific Ocean, an exciting encounter awaits on every trip around the corner!
By James Lee
Authors note: pursuant to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, it is unlawful to approach within 100 yards of whales and within 50 yards of dolphins, porpoises and pinnipeds. If a marine mammal approaches you closer than these distances, do not attempt to approach them further. If you observe a marine mammal that appears lost, injured or sick, please do not try to aid it yourself, as you may unintentionally cause the animal more injury or stress, and may bring serious injury or illness to yourself as a result. Instead, please call your local marine rescue center.