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San Francisco Bay’s Cold Water Means Abundant Anchovies and Pelicans

There are more pelicans looping the Bay than we ever remember seeing. Despite their ungainly appearance, they are one of our favorite birds to watch while sailing. They are forever relaxed as they pump their wings or pause to glide over the water. Then, without much effort or flourish, they drop to the surface to scoop up another mouthful of fish.

Pelican Bird 1.0
Up close a pelican looks like Bird 1.0. It just shouldn’t work.
© 2022 Latitude 38 Media LLC / John

According to SFGate, we’re currently seeing more seabirds due to an explosion in anchovies between Half Moon Bay and Pt. Reyes, which in turn, is caused by extra-cold water bringing more nutrients to the surface. Pelicans and other seabirds are filling themselves up so much that, when flying inland over the city, they have been dropping excess fish onto rooftops and sidewalks.

The baitfish have attracted more seabirds, sea lions and whales, meaning this coming weekend’s Half Moon Bay Race may also be a good opportunity for whale watching.

Pelican fleet
You can’t sail anywhere without being surrounded by a flock of pelicans.
© 2022 Latitude 38 Media LLC / John

We’d like to think the increasing marine life is also due to cleaner Bay waters. Over the past several years we’ve seen much more bird life and many more whales, and enjoyed more frequent sightings of harbor porpoises. It’s a wildlife extravaganza right in the middle of our densely urbanized, metropolitan area.

The arc of the pelican
If you’re into wings and foils the pelicans’ various wing forms provide insights.
© 2022 Latitude 38 Media LLC / John

By appearance, the pelicans look like one of nature’s mistakes, but in flight they are graceful and inspiring. Their odd appearance doesn’t hinder their effective fishing techniques or their enjoyment of the currently plentiful schools of anchovies.


  1. Craig Russell 11 months ago

    The Chronicle says the bay temp is 55 degrees today. Normally it would be in the low 60’s. I have to think that because of strong winds on the ocean, the upwelling of deeper, nutrient-rich, cold water is keeping the bay cold and bringing more to the food chain. Hence more pelicans. I have been sailing this week and there are alot more flying around than usual.

  2. Jeff Hoffman 11 months ago

    When I sailed Hobie Cats in the Tampa Bay area in Florida, pelicans were common. My favorite bird there, they have no vocal cords so they can make annoying complaint sounds.

  3. milly Biller 11 months ago

    Pelicans are very amazing birds. Their hollow bones makes them virtually weightless, despite their size. They certainly seem to me an indicator of positive ocean and bay health. There is a huge number of them up here in Tomales Bay too. We endured the big breezes of Spring, but they resulted in the upwelling that are the underlying causes of this wonderful phenomenon. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts !

  4. Tim Maloney 11 months ago

    Dixon Lanier Merritt, 1910:

    A wonderful bird is the pelican
    His bill will hold more than his belican.
    He can take in his beak
    Food enough for a week,
    But I’m damned if I see how the helican. 

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