The Elusive Sound of San Francisco Wave Organ

“The best day to walk along the bay is when it’s raining.”

This is the mantra I am trying to send the universe that gloomy weekend morning. Weather forecast: Rain for most part of morning, cloudy in the afternoon.
It has been raining for about three days now.

I checked my small planner book and rethink if San Francisco Wave Organ (sitting at the edge of the bay) is still a reasonable destination for today.

An hour later, I finally reasoned out that if I want to consider myself a traveler, then I should bring the weather with me and not the other way around. I packed up my usual ‘to-go’ stuffs as well as some ‘sunshine’ on my explorer’s bag.

San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts

I alight at the gate of Presidio from the weekend free shuttle bus. Took sometime admiring the magnificent Palace of Fine Arts along Baker street. The picture-perfect spot is just soothing in so many ways.

I head straight towards the St Francis yacht club passing Marina Blvd. Lots of small boats and yachts were docked at the moment because of the unruly weather making the place a little crowded.

Along the strip was a striking small lighthouse – sort of. I continued walking until I saw the end of the strip. There, at the jetty, lies the San Francisco Wave Organ.

The Wave Organ is an acoustic sculpture built on San Francisco Bay’s shore in 1986.

Through a series of pipes, the Organ interacts with the waves of the bay, conveying amplified sound to the listeners at several different stations.

The stone used for the construction is salvaged from the demolished Laurel Hill Cemetery. Intriguing and at the same time creepy.

My heart sank as I walk slowly closer to the edge because (as it often does) what I read, and therefore expect, is not really what I’m seeing, or more accurately this time: hearing.

I thought that about ten meters away, provided it was high tide due to a couple of days’ rain, the place would be a raging orchestra.

I expected loud nature symphonies. But here I am standing at its very center, hearing nothing. Was it on mute? Is there a power button that would turn it on?


The sky is surprisingly brilliant blue despite the forecast that it’s going to be cloudy. Looking past the jetty, I saw the Alcatraz island at a distance in all its grand solitude.

Looking around will give you the sights of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the East Bay hills further across the waters, Sausalito, Mt. Tamalpais, the Presidio, and part of the Marin Headlands.

Its like a detached solemn part of the city where you can observe all those beauties from a distance. The picturesque view makes up for the lack of music, I justified.

Golden Gate bridge stood in its usual elegance.

I breathe in a few more minutes of solace. Then just when I’m about to leave, I notice this child in his bright blue jacket bending over one of the protruded pipes with one ear pressed forcefully on the hole.

He has been there for quite a while now. Then he suddenly moved as if something had caught him surprisingly. That’s when he looked back (probably looking for his parents) where I met his eyes. Realizing his parents were not anywhere close, he runs up one of the stairs and went out of my sight. What was it? Was he perhaps able to hear something?

Then I thought maybe, I’ll give it a shot one more time. I pressed my ear again cautiously on one of the pipe’s holes,
a little scared that sand or water comes out of it.

I still hear nothing except the murmurs of other people around and the gust of wind that’s blowing swiftly on my head.

But this time, I was eager and more patient. About thirty seconds later, I think I just hear some low rumbling sounds. I kept my focus on listening. Wasn’t sure anymore how long my ear had been in there, but somehow, I’m hearing louder sounds.

There were soft gurgling sounds that ebb and flow with the movement of the ocean as it follows the changing of the tides. It’s like a giant conch with endless sound varieties from muffled drums and cymbals to hints of sea lions’ barks.

I can hear resonations, rumblings and wheezing as the wave laps at the lower ends of the pipes. It feels like a symphony of land and sea when the waves slap on the little rocks beneath.

Complex yet easy. Imposing and hypnotic. It demands to be heard.

Reaching the climax of the musical, I can sense the mysterious hands of waves begin to ebb, as if momentarily receding to gain that momentum for the final ending note.

Then slowly I can hear a very subtle sound different from all others before it. Very unique I’m in awe that such waves have the ability to create this sound.

Slowly, the tempo rises and its getting louder until it turns to a very distinguishable sound. Something I have heard before. The volume rises a little more and very clearly, it now resembles a… bark. And yes, as I look over my shoulder, there’s a big dog (unleashed) running towards the jetty. And oh that explains it…

I tried to press my ear some more, but could not hear anything anymore. Just faint, low unidentifiable sounds.

The dog in a distance enjoys this solemn haven as well.

I sat for some more minutes pondering on what I have just gained on my explorer’s bag. That few minutes felt like when an extremely reserve person opens up to you and share his secret worlds.

I remember my morning mantra earlier. The disappointment I felt when barely a meter away from the musical structure, I hear nothing. Then I remember vividly how I watched the child’s reaction. That moment that leads me to this. The switch of the mute button to volume.

Heading back to Presidio facing the golden gate bridge

Sometimes, we’re simply just not impressed. We’re too disappointed to give it a try.

But as I made my way to countless trips to different places, I came to believe that each place (with literal musical instrument or not) emits their own sound. That unique song that will make the memory of the place linger on you. But in order to hear it, you must first be willing to listen.

Share me 🙂