San Francisco Bay has always seemed impenetrable to me; it’s impossible to see what lurks in those murky, grey-green depths. And there isn’t much reason to venture into the water; it’s cold, sharky, polluted, and subject to riptides and swift-moving currents. The Bay is not a good place for people. Over the years, I’ve relegated it in my mind to a sort of big, grey sidewalk.
There seems to be a kind of disconnect between the vast majority of San Franciscans and the water that flows around three sides of the city; few of us rely on it for sustenance, recreation, or ritual. As waterfront industries declined and tourism increased, our working relationship with the bay and ocean has all but vanished. Though in recent years there seems to be a rise in the number of surfers, and the repurposed Chrissy Field has brought people in closer proximity to the Bay, our cultural connection to the water seems to have been lost.
Fisherman’s Wharf is now, in essence, a 3-block buffer zone that discourages residents from interacting with the Bay. Goods and services on the Wharf are completely geared toward visitors, not residents. Unless you subsist on burgers from the Rainforest Cafe and clam chowder in sourdough bowls, and work selling fleeces or begging for change, it doesn’t offer much. (Quick, someone spend a month living on the Wharf and write a book about it.)
Last year, when I still lived in North Beach, I started walking to the Wharf to clear my head. I’d pass by the tourist shops to get to the piers. I’d walk by the few companies that still gut and clean fish for wholesale, huge barn doors opening on scenes of men in rubber boots, elbow deep in trays of ice and bloody fish innards. I’d see the tiny fisherman’s chapel, perched on its pilings out over the water.
Sometimes I’d stroll all the way to the Hyde Street Pier and visit the old historic ships that I’d played on as a kid: the Balclutha, the Thayer, the Eureka. I’d smell the tars and rope and oils, and watch the shipwrights crafting replacement parts in their open air workshops. It was incredibly familiar and yet I didn’t know the first thing about tying a knot or what I’d actually tar.
Inevitably, I’d wonder what it would be like to know how to sail a ship; to know how to get the ship to the seas AND get back. I’d wonder if I would freak out after being out of sight of land for weeks. I’d think about the profound scene in Moby Dick when Quequeg comes into Ishmael’s room, and they meet for the first time. And then I’d imagine I was a 19th century seaman. With a laptop. (Which I would surely be killed for it. But I would tell them that I could make powerful spreadsheets for them, and maybe they would spare me.)
If the Bay is a dangerous and alien environment, the ocean is even more so; it’s where you end up when you fall overboard and get swept out of the Bay. The only bit of land from here to Hawaii is the Farallones, a tiny group of islands 27 miles from shore. Serving as the eastern corner of the Red Triangle, it’s always seemed less of a destination than a marker.
When I first learned that there were such things as Farallones whale watching trips, which offered the chance to see humpbacks, blues, and even great white sharks, it almost didn’t seem possible.
I finally took a trip this past Sunday, through the non-profit Oceanic Society. The sky was overcast and a lovely, misty fog hung over the city. As we motored under the bridge and I looked back toward downtown, I could just make out the grey silhouettes of the buildings. Out on the open sea, the sea and sky were also shades of grey. Though there was nothing much to see, most of the enthusiastic passengers remained on deck, scanning for animals during the two-hour ride to the Farallones.
When we approached the islands, it was a relief to be able to focus my eyes on something solid. As we got closer, the squawking of 300,000 seabirds grew ever louder; the little Farallones island chain is apparently the largest breeding ground in the lower 48. We saw terns, cormorants, murres, and tufted puffins, which look like a delightful cross between penguins and toucans. We even stopped to pick up a researcher who had just finished a 6-week stint studying seabirds.
Beginning the whale watching in earnest, the captain told us to look for vertical columns of white spray. Everyone assembled on the tip of the bow. The skipper barked at us to crouch down so that he would have a clear view. Thirty heads constantly swiveled around to catch sight of the spray, like a bunch of monkeys that had just heard an alarm call.
Within a few minutes, someone spotted a blow about a mile away, and the boat chased down what turned out to a grey whale. We followed it for a while as it swam peacefully. Then we ventured off the continental shelf, where upwellings of krill provide feed for blue whales, the largest mammals on earth. I tried not to think about the tremendous depths below us.
Though we didn’t sight any blue whales, we happened upon a pod of humpbacks slapping their oversize white flippers on the surface of the water. After a while they took to breaching, their giant bodies spinning in the air, flippers and flukes whirling. People couldn’t help but shriek and clap in delight.
The strangest part about the trip was actually seeing San Francisco again after eight hours at sea. The boat approached the city from the south, cruising up the coast past Ocean Beach, about 200 feet from the shore. At that distance, all you could see were the houses, which appeared small, and, in the bright late afternoon light, strangely uniform.
As we passed Sea Cliff, the late afternoon sun cast hard, angular shadows on the Mediterranean- style houses. The city seemed strangely lifeless. It reminded me of De Chirico’s painting, “Mystery and Melancholy of a Street.”
Off the starboard, a harbor porpoise shot straight out of the water and returned to the water as quickly as it left. It had no idea what was happening in the city just 150 feet away. And from the sea, it looked lonely indeed.