Safe Harbor


A porpoise calf and mother surface to take a breath. Photo by William Keener/Bay Nature

Welcoming porpoises back to San Francisco Bay

Cavallo Point at Fort Baker is not just a place to watch sailboats go by as the morning sun illuminates the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s also a great place to watch the water surge in and out with the tides. And with a little patience, you might see a black dorsal fin cut the swirling water, followed by another, smaller fin. A mother harbor porpoise and her calf are rolling at the surface, entering the bay. In the calm of a slack tide, if they come close enough, you can hear them breathe: two sharp chuffs.

Standing on this rock at the southern tip of Marin County today, you can often see porpoises swimming past in groups of two or three. From the much higher vantage point of the Golden Gate Bridge, you might count as many as 20 or 30. Through the green water you can watch them traveling, or loafing, or spinning on their sides as they make a dash for a fish, then pop up beneath a flock of excited gulls.

Such sightings are all the more remarkable because for many decades porpoises weren’t seen inside the bay. Now, however, the Bay Area is one of the few metropolitan areas in the world where you can see cetaceans every day.

More than a wildlife spectacle, the presence of these shy animals could be telling us something positive about the health of the bay ecosystem. Big mammals, especially carnivores, are in decline everywhere. Unless humans intervene, as with the wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone, they rarely make a comeback. Yet it’s happened here — the porpoises have “reintroduced” themselves to San Francisco Bay. 

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This story appeared in the fall print edition.