Q: Off San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, I saw dorsal fins beyond the surfers. After 20 minutes, I saw two bearers of fins breaching the water. What were they? [Claire, San Bruno]
A: Congratulations on being very observant. The animals you saw were most likely harbor porpoises. They are among the smallest of the 78 species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises). They reach six feet in length and weigh about 190 pounds. Gee, about like me. As their name indicates, they’re often found close to shore. Though common, they’re not particularly acrobatic and do not ride the bow waves of ships, so it’s easy to overlook them. I regularly see these small porpoises in the channel of the Golden Gate and about halfway out to the Farallon Islands. The porpoises—found throughout the Northern Hemisphere in cool, temperate waters—are not picky eaters and feed on a large variety of small fish.
In the 1980s, an estimated 2,000 harbor porpoises drowned in gill nets along Central California! Fortunately, fishing practices are now better regulated and the population is expected to recover eventually. But harbor porpoises’ habit of frequenting shallow water puts them in close contact with human activities, and their numbers have been decreasing worldwide.
Waters off Central California are also home to Dall porpoises, Pacific white-sided dolphins, northern right whale dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, and (rarely) common dolphins.
Aristotle recognized that dolphins and their kin were air-breathing mammals, not fish. He called them porcine pisces—the pig fish—which became porpoise in English. The Greek philosopher-scientist may have actually been examining a harbor porpoise, which was a common species in the Mediterranean Sea back then. But alas, no more.
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