I had been living in the Bay Area for 25 years–and had crossed the Golden Gate Bridge countless times–before I took my first trip under the bridge and out through the Golden Gate. It was an outing dedicated to observing marine life around the Farallon Islands, but the adventure started almost immediately: Shortly after we passed under the bridge someone shouted and pointed out some sleek black shapes breaking the surface. It was a small pod of harbor porpoises, a marine mammal I’d never seen before and had no idea lived in the area.
Beyond the excitement of seeing porpoises within the city limits of San Francisco, I was struck by the fact that the porpoises’ heads didn’t come out of the water. All I saw was the momentary flash of their backs and dorsal fins as they broke the water to take in a quick breath of air and disappear again.
That’s an interesting thing about cetaceans: They are creatures of the water, but they have to come out of their home medium to breathe. Seems a challenging evolutionary choice, but it does make them emissaries of sorts between one realm and the other. The porpoises were a bold but fleeting reminder that there’s a whole other world just below the surface, one that is mostly unseen by the millions of us living near, and driving over, the Golden Gate.
One of the other passengers on that expedition back in 1997 was Bill Keener, a lawyer by trade but a marine mammal researcher by passion. Keener is now part of a group of researchers studying the return of harbor porpoises to San Francisco Bay after an absence of six decades. As he points out in this issue, it’s pretty rare for a large mammal to reintroduce itself to its former habitat, absent some heroic reintroduction effort undertaken by humans. Could this be a sign that our work to protect and restore the Bay–and the watersheds that feed into it–is bearing fruit?
I actually had the good fortune to see porpoises swimming in the Bay even before I had heard about Keener’s research. If you paddle out from Sausalito toward Cavallo Point or Raccoon Strait during the right tides, you now have a decent chance of seeing them. As exciting as it was to see porpoises far off from the deck of a large boat, it’s even more so to be sitting in your kayak at water level and suddenly see a dorsal fin burst out of the water between you and the San Francisco skyline.
It’s nearby, up-close, and eye-level sightings such as these–along with harbor seals, pelicans, sea lions, loons, and more–that keep luring me back out onto the Bay. And that’s what makes the idea of a Bay Water Trail so compelling, because it promises to open up and demystify this exceptional recreational, open space, and wildlife resource. There’s nothing quite like a trip out onto San Francisco Bay to clear the head and sharpen the senses as you plunge into the wild heart of the region. But for the moment, you can stay dry and let Bay Nature take you down under the opaque green surface, into the hidden realm of your new neighbor, the harbor porpoise.
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The California Coastal Trail runs west of Highway 1 along this scenic stretch of the San Mateo coast.