Patty McGinnis: San Francisco–Home to Alcatraz, Angel Island, and Sea Lions, May 22, 2013

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Patty McGinnis
Aboard R/V Ocean Starr
May 20 – 29, 2013

Mission: Juvenile Rockfish Survey
Geographical Area of Cruise: San Francisco
Date: May 22, 2013

Personal Log

Early Monday I flew out of Philadelphia and landed a few hours later on the west coast—a trip that would have taken the pioneer settlers a half a year or more to accomplish. The first leg of my flight landed in Los Angeles, followed by a short hop up north to San Francisco. The plane followed the California coastline nearly the entire time. I found myself mesmerized by the Pacific Ocean as it hugged the shoreline as if to embrace the homes that dotted the land. I had spent many years of my youth growing up in San Diego, and watching the water brought back many memories of lazy summer days complete with gritty sandwiches and sunburned skin.

My first night in San Francisco was spent in a hotel near the airport; yesterday morning I took an expensive (nearly $60!!!) taxi cab to my current accommodation. I was lucky—the hotel had a room free early in the morning so I dumped my bag and went exploring. It was only a short walk to Fisherman’s Wharf—the place where San Francisco fisherman have historically unloaded their catch—most notably the Dungeness crab. The crab gets its name from a town in Washington where it was first harvested (although I didn’t have an opportunity to taste the crab, I wondered how it compares to the Chesapeake Blue Crab).

Although the sun was out, I found it was a mere deception once I got close to the water. The air temperatures were in the 50’s and the wind was blustery at times. Up and down the waterfront are numbered piers; I walked down to Pier 33 in hopes of buying a ticket to Alcatraz Island. Alcatraz, or the “The Rock” is quite visible from the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Although many know it as a famous prison, it has also been a Civil War fort and was home to the first lighthouse on the west coast. The only way to get onto the island, which is managed by the National Park Service, is by purchasing a ticket through a ferry company. Despite it being midweek and not quite summer, all the tickets had been sold out for the entire day.

Alcatraz Island doesn’t seem that far away from San Francisco but cold, rough water means few prisoners escaped

Disappointed, I trudged down towards Pier 39—a famous tourist attraction. I settled for a tour of the bay, which included a good look at both the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Both are engineering marvels. The Bay Bridge, which opened in 1936, is actually a double-decker bridge that is part suspension bridge and part cantilever bridge. Originally the top deck was for cars and the bottom deck was for trains and trucks but now cars can travel on both levels. The Golden Gate Bridge is a suspension bridge that opened in 1937. It is possible to walk across the bridge and today was no exception. As our boat passed under the bridge, I could see people waving at us from high above. Our boat had a loud speaker that provided interesting information about the history of San Francisco, but the noise from the wind made it difficult to make out what was being said. Our boat was rocked around by the wind and swells, making me wonder what the water outside the relative shelter of the bay was doing. I do know that rough seas have changed the location where I’ll be boarding the Ocean Starr. Later today I’ll be picked up and driven to Santa Cruz, a town south of here that lies along the Monterey Bay.

On the water with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background
On the water with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background

While on the tour of the San Francisco Bay, I learned about Angel Island—a quiet wildlife area that is a California state park only accessible by ferry. I found the lure of visiting a relatively uninhabited area after the hustle and bustle of Fisherman’s Wharf too strong to ignore. Interested in doing a little hiking, I grabbed an afternoon ferry over to the island and was delighted by the unusual plant life and the opportunity to listen to waves crashing against the shore (check out the Angelcam for a view from the Visitors center). During my walk, I spied numerous succulents, as well as some beautiful (and unidentifiable by me) trees with bark reminiscent of the sycamore.

The bark on this tree reminded me of the sycamore
The bark on this tree reminded me of the sycamore

Angel Island has a fascinating history. Although it is a California park today, at one time it served as an immigration point for nearly a million immigrants, most of whom were Chinese. Unlike European immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, however, the Chinese immigrants were detained until they could prove that they had family in the United States (a process that often took years). Angel Island was also at one time the home of a U.S. Army base called Fort McDawgell and served as a quarantine station to prevent the spread of illness to San Francisco.

It was late afternoon when I returned to Fisherman’s Wharf, where I spent quite a bit of time at Pier 39 observing the resident colony of California sea lions. The sea lions, the majority of which are male, reminded me of some middle school students I know. Although many napped in the sun, others jostled and pushed each other around and off the docks and some brayed loudly as if to say “look at me.” Sea lions have always been present in the bay, but using the docks as a haul out for sunning has only been occurring since 1989. Researchers aren’t sure what prompted the animals to begin using the dock as a habitat, but plentiful food and an absence of predators are two reasons that the animals stay around. Yesterday nearly all the dock space was packed with wall-to-wall sea lions who crowded near each other as they slept. This behavior of seeking out physical contact is known as positive thigmotaxis. The sea lion numbers evidently fluctuate in response to food availability and mating season as many of the “bachelors” head off in search of a girlfriend. You can check out their antics on the Sea Lion webcam.

Look who took over Pier 39!
Look who took over Pier 39!
These sea lions are displaying positive thigmotaxis when they lie on top of each other
These sea lions are displaying positive thigmotaxis when they lie on top of each other

As I finish my writing, I think about the adventure ahead. I’ll soon be picked up soon by two scientists and driven to Santa Cruz, where we will board the Ocean Starr. I worry a bit about the rough seas and the likelihood of seasickness. I also wonder what it will be like to conduct night trawling. I’ve been assigned to the 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. shift; why is it that trawling is done at night? Are fish feeding at that time and more likely to be caught? Does night trawling reduce by-catch (organisms that are caught unintentionally)? Or perhaps it is because you catch more at night? I guess I will soon find out. In the meantime, I better study the picture below so I can help identify the fish we catch!

Which fish would you buy at the supermarket?
Which fish would you buy at the supermarket?

3 Replies to “Patty McGinnis: San Francisco–Home to Alcatraz, Angel Island, and Sea Lions, May 22, 2013”

  1. Thanks for the detailed description of your first days, Patty! Your words helped me imagine I was there. Having visited San Francisco a few years ago, I remembered the sights and sounds…particularly the sea lions. Looking forward to reading of your adventures.

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