Seasons of the Sea

Unlike the land’s four seasons, in our ocean the "seasons of the sea" are three:

Winter Storm: December - February

Storms from the north and west build enormous swells and bring winter squalls. Tendrils of freshwater flow out the Golden Gate, swirling into the gulf, changing its chemistry.

Coastal waters are at their coldest. Gray whales pass near shore en route from Arctic feeding grounds to Mexican breeding grounds, while elephant seals, fattened by months foraging at sea, gather on beaches to enact primal mating and pupping rituals. Seabirds 'prospect' for nesting sites on the Farallones and coastal cliffs. Between storms the air shimmers brilliantly above the frigid ocean surface.

Open Ocean

Whale Watching: California gray whale migration peaks mid-January. Watch for wintering waterfowl.

Oceanic Society

San Francisco Whale Tours

Farallon Islands

Visible from coastal headlands, Pt. Reyes Lighthouse overlook.

Los Farallones Blog

Rocky Shore

Tidepooling: Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Duxbury Reef, Pigeon Point.  Species similar year-round: sea urchins, sculpins, crabs, anemones, the elusive octopus! Best at lowest tides: check tide tables and  high surf alerts. Avoid pocket beaches at incoming tides. "Don't turn  your back to the sea!"

Tide Tables

Sandy Beach

Enjoy a winter beach walk, look for washed-up sea glass, jellies, other flotsam. Stinson Beach, Great Beach, Linda Mar, Bolinas Beach are just a few.

Places to Go.

Bay/Marsh/Estuary

Paddle calm waters and encounter shy harbor seals, leopard sharks, and bat rays. Stop at roadside pullouts to spot seals!

Pt. Reyes Outdoors

Sea Trek

Virtual Visits

Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center, Presidio (SF)

California Academy of Sciences (SF): California Coast Exhibit

Aquarium of the Bay (SF): Dive Into Your National Marine Sanctuaries

Point Reyes National Seashore: Bear Valley Visitor Center (Olema)

Point Reyes Lighthouse: Ocean Exploration Center

Upwelling: March - August

Brisk spring winds churn up cold, nutrient-rich waters from the deep ocean, and sunlight sparks photosynthesis in microscopic sea plants. Tiny animals feed on them, and in turn become food for fish, seabirds, sharks and whales. Seabirds breed in raucous colonies on islands and cliffs, and giant whales move in to feast on fish and krill. The Pacific High pressure system holds storms at bay, sometimes shrouding the coast in fog.

This is prime seabird nesting season (look for Tufted Puffins!) at the Farallon Islands, and dinnertime for hungry humpbacks and blue whales in surrounding sanctuary waters.

Open Ocean

Whale Watching: Northbound grays (through June), prime time for humpbacks, blue whales and seabirds.

Oceanic Society

San Francisco Whale Tours

Farallon Islands

Whales (blues, humpbacks), nesting seabirds, other marine life viewing on day cruises around islands. (May-Nov.).

Los Farallones Blog

Rocky Shore

Tidepooling: Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Duxbury Reef, Pigeon Point.  Species similar year-round: sea urchins, sculpins, crabs, anemones, the elusive octopus! Best at lowest tides: check tide tables and  high surf alerts. Avoid pocket beaches at incoming tides. "Don't turn  your back to the sea!"

Tide Tables

Sandy Beach

Surf, paddleboard, spend a day or a quiet evening at the beach. Watch squadrons of pelicans skim the wave tops, or build a sand mermaid.

Places to Go.

Bay/Marsh/Estuary

At Bolinas Lagoon watch egret mating displays, hear piping  marsh birds. Harbor seal pups appear with their moms on the mudflats.

Martin Griffin Preserve

Virtual Visits

Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center, Presidio (SF)

California Academy of Sciences (SF): California Coast Exhibit

Aquarium of the Bay (SF): Dive Into Your National Marine Sanctuaries

Point Reyes National Seashore: Bear Valley Visitor Center (Olema)

Point Reyes Lighthouse: Ocean Exploration Center

Oceanic: September - November

As the winds slow or reverse direction in the fall, the ocean 'relaxes,' upwelling ceases, and warm surface waters shift back toward the coast. Larval fish and invertebrates are swept inshore to settle and grow. Seabird rookeries fall quiet as the last chicks fledge. The water becomes clearer, inviting white sharks to delectable seal meals.

Giant leatherback sea turtles and mola mola sunfish dine on jellies and squid, while flocks of shearwaters feed and fatten before returning to New Zealand nesting sites. This is a welcome stopover for other migrating birds along the Great Pacific Flyway.

Open Ocean

Whale Watching: Great time for humpback and blue whales, mola molas, sea turtles, sharks.

Oceanic Society

San Francisco Whale Tours

Farallon Islands

Whales (blues, humpbacks); see dolphins, porpoise, blue sharks, white sharks; from day-cruise boats.

Los Farallones Blog

Rocky Shore

Tidepooling: Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, Duxbury Reef, Pigeon Point.  Species similar year-round: sea urchins, sculpins, crabs, anemones, the elusive octopus! Best at lowest tides: check tide tables and  high surf alerts. Avoid pocket beaches at incoming tides. "Don't turn  your back to the sea!"

Tide Tables

Sandy Beach

Experience the sea at its quietest. Stroll the strand, look for sea lions cavorting. Look for the night glow of  bioluminescence. Note how beaches change seasonally!

Places to Go.

Bay/Marsh/Estuary

The Pacific Flyway migration brings thousands of birds to rest and forage on their continent-long journeys. Watch for hawks on the prowl!

Pt. Reyes Outdoors

Sea Trek

Virtual Visits

Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center, Presidio (SF)

California Academy of Sciences (SF): California Coast Exhibit

Aquarium of the Bay (SF): Dive Into Your National Marine Sanctuaries

Point Reyes National Seashore: Bear Valley Visitor Center (Olema)

Point Reyes Lighthouse: Ocean Exploration Center