Farallon islands

Prehistoric Creatures in a Prehistoric World

The Farallon Islands are very close, and very far away

They emerge from the morning mist like the fading memory of a dream, faint, elusive, indistinct phantom shapes that may or may not be real.

Then definition gradually arrives as the boat narrows the distance, ghostly spires assembling on the western horizon like jagged fangs, and you understand at once why ancient mariners called them “Devil’s Teeth.”

You approach the Farallon Islands cautiously, as if entering a fantasy world, and it’s hard not to think of Skull Island, the fictional redoubt of King Kong, minus the jungle and various prehistoric reptiles invented by Hollywood.

The Farallones themselves are truly prehistoric—chunks of Paleocene granite torn from the continental crust and rifted north on the Pacific Plate along the margins of the San Andreas Fault.

And prehistoric creatures do, indeed, inhabit this world, in the form of Carcharodon carchariasgreat white sharks—a familiar number of which arrive each year to feed on juvenile seals and sea lions while circling Southeast Farallon Island like bloodthirsty crocodiles in a castle moat.

Their species dates back at least 11 million years, and their biological order is traced in fossil records 155 million years old. They have evolved into the planet’s apex marine predator—a role they share only with orcas—and the Farallon group of 15-to-50 formidably large great whites reach 18 feet or more, populating the Farallon waters from September through November each year, patrolling with primeval precision.

Shark thoughts tend to occupy the mind as the Farallones approach, especially on a misty day when 10-to-15-foot swells pummel the raw and fractured margins, and a brisk wind carries the ammonia scent of seabird guano and elephant seal poop at least half a mile offshore.

The 27-mile trip from San Francisco typically takes two and a half hours, with stops along the way to watch humpback whales sounding, rising, and waving their flukes, along with dolphins and countless sea birds. While most trips put an emphasis on whale watching, a minor industry has grown up around the world’s growing fascination with the ocean’s most perfect predator.

The shark mystique adds an element of intrigue to the island chain, and some tour operators specialize in trips promoting Great White sightings and even more intimate encounters for divers in metal cages, a controversial activity that has roiled scientific waters, offending the resident marine biologists who have made studying the creatures their life’s work and oppose human intervention that affects normal white shark behavior.

But this trip, aboard the Salty Lady and led by the Oceanic Society, is more about whales and the islands themselves—bleak, barren, windswept, and treacherous—if not impossible—to land on.

The Farallones also present a navigational nightmare that has resulted in an estimated 300 shipwrecks through history, including one as recently as 2012. During that year’s Full Crew Farallones Race, a 38-foot, single-masted racing cutter, called Low Speed Chase, was struck by an enormous wave, foundered in rough seas just off Maintop—a rocky outcrop of Southeast Farallon—and driven into the rocks. Five of eight crewmembers died, and among the survivors was Nick Vos, of Sonoma, who, according to news reports, suffered a broken leg. His girlfriend, Alexis Busch—daughter of former SF Giants executive Corey Busch—was swept overboard, and her body was never recovered. The accident site was on the western side of the island group, where waves kicked up by the nearby edge of the continental shelf regularly attack the rocky shore from several directions and with great velocity and size.

And if that isn’t enough of a frightening legacy to confront Farallones visitors, consider the fact that, between 1946 and 1970, some 47,500 drums of hazardous and radioactive wastes were dumped by the U.S. government within what is now the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. A federal mapping effort places most of the dumped materials just south of Southeast Farallon Island, and government reports describe the dumped radioactive waste as “low level,” with a short half-life that would quickly decay when diluted with seawater.

But some skeptics discount that claim, and news reports in the SF Weekly and a book (Radioactive Waste: From Here to Eternity) published in 1981 by Mother Jones magazine, argue there is evidence much more dangerous radioactive waste was dumped, possibly including plutonium. A Navy veteran interviewed by SF Weekly in 2001 said an Atomic Energy Commission inspector occasionally came aboard the barge he was assigned to and told the captain radiation levels were too high.

That veteran also said that when some of the jettisoned waste barrels didn’t sink immediately, it was his job to shoot them full of holes to make sure they made it to the bottom, which he said he did 10 or 20 times each week.

No comprehensive records of what was dumped in the Pacific have ever been released, and there has been no serious effort to test biological samples from the site because both the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense have insisted that they don’t know precisely what was dumped, and that whatever it was, it isn’t dangerous.

The barrels of radioactive waste were joined by a radioactive World War II aircraft carrier in 1951 when the Navy sunk the USS Independence near the Farallones after its distinguished wartime service in the Pacific and its post-war stint as an atomic bomb test target during Operation Crossroads.

That was the 1946 A-bomb test at Bikini Atoll, during which the U.S. detonated two Nagasaki-sized bombs over and under a fleet of derelict and surplus ships to study how they would survive.

The heavily “irradiated” Independence was towed back to San Francisco so scientists could explore nuclear decontamination, until it threatened to sink in place at Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard. Before it was dispatched to a Farallon gravesite, it too was stuffed with barrels of radioactive waste.

A 2015 underwater survey of the 11,000-ton carrier’s resting place in 2,600 feet of water found it upright and “amazingly intact.”

That, alas, was not the last indignity heaped on the Farallon neighborhood. In 1953, the outbound freighter Jacob Luckenbach was 17 miles outside the Golden Gate and within the Farallones Sanctuary boundary when it was struck in heavy fog by an inbound freighter and quickly sank in 176 feet of water.

Almost 50 years later, mysterious oil spills began showing up on state beaches, polluting thousands of square miles of tidal marshes and killing some 50,000 shorebirds from Morro Bay to Point Reyes, along with eight sea otters. The oil was traced to the full tanks of fuel oil on the Luckenbach. But that wasn’t nearly as bad as the explosion of the tanker Puerto Rican, which released 5.4 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of the Farallones in 1984 before the stern section sank with 365,500 gallons of bunker fuel that leaked for years.

With so much death and destruction, the Native American name for the Farallones—“Islands of the Dead”—seems presciently appropriate, except that the name bespeaks a profound misunderstanding about what is actually there. The Farallones sit about six miles east of the continental shelf, where the Pacific Ocean drops 3,000 feet and more. One consequence of that bathymetric fact is an upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water that bathes the Farallones Sanctuary in a nourishing soup of ascending life forms, a food web that supports everything from billions of tiny krill to seabirds by the hundreds of thousands to endless kinds and numbers of fish, marine mammals from northern fur seals to elephant seals, from porpoises and dolphins to orcas, humpbacks, and blue whales—the largest creature ever to occupy any part of the planet. Isolated by cold water and often angry seas, the Farallones are sometimes called the “Galapagos of California.”

Far from a death zone, the island waters are spilling over with life, despite the efforts of several human generations to kill it. When Sir Francis Drake dropped by in 1579, on his way to circumnavigate the globe, he provisioned the Golden Hind with Farallon seal meat and bird eggs, which set a precedent for Gold Rush San Francisco where there was a woeful shortage of chickens. The conical and multicolored eggs of the common murre were discovered to be quite tasty, a discovery that triggered the pillaging of millions of murre nests on Southeast Farallon Island. Competing egg interests even got into a “war” in 1863, in which two people died. Before egg collecting began in 1848, there were an estimated 1 million murres on the islands. By the time the practice was stopped by federal edict in 1881, the murre population had dropped to about 6,000. Today it has rebounded to 150,000 and the Farallones now have the largest seabird nesting colony in the lower 48 states, along with the world’s largest colony of western gulls and half the global population of ashy storm-petrels.

In all, there are about 300,000 breeding seabirds, among 13 species, on the islands each season, and more than 400 bird species have been sighted there.

Overseeing this biological cornucopia is a small team of researchers who occupy Southeast Farallon literally 24/7, for 365 days a year, even on Christmas. Working for Point Blue Conservation Science, a nonprofit headquartered in Petaluma, and in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), biologists have spent the last 51 years collecting long-term data, deep understanding and personal relationships on and around the island chain. Point Blue research has amassed a trove of information on white sharks, seals and sea lions, whales, seabirds, and the entire marine environment. That research has led to significant beneficial regulation, including recent policy protocols by NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard to reduce ship strikes on whales; a ban on gill netting to prevent killing seabirds as bycatch; a law banning the hunting of great white sharks in California; and creation of protective regulations around the Farallones Marine Protected Area.

Living on this lonely island may be a biologist’s dream, but by any rational standard, it’s a trial. While there were once as many as 78 people living on Southeast Farallon (when both Navy and Coast Guard members were stationed their with families), the current population of Point Blue staff (usually about six people) work in alternating cycles of six weeks on and two weeks off. There is one habitable house with one usable toilet. Potable water comes mostly from a triple-filtered cistern, showers are few and far between, the wind blows more than it doesn’t, sometimes with gale force.

During breeding season there is a nonstop cacophony of screeching birds, coupled with the croaking barks of elephant seals and sea lions and the pungent smell of bird and marine mammal excrement that penetrates clothing, nostrils, and perhaps human brain tissue. Aggressive gulls, quite accurately described for years as “flying rats,” view the human presence as an invitation to exploit, appropriate, and befoul.

Atop Southeast Farallon’s highest point—Tower Hill—there is a lighthouse (the second ever on the West Coast, that used to be manned), a live webcam, and an observation platform where someone is assigned to count things—birds, sharks, elephant seals, harbor seals, northern fur seals, California sea lions, Steller sea lions—every day.

One thing else that’s being counted lately is the explosive number of invasive house mice on the island (about 490 per acre, or 46,937 for the whole 95.79-acre island), and the subsequent number of burrowing owls, who are attracted by the mice, but then begin eating endangered ashy storm-petrels when the mouse population undergoes its annual collapse. Since half of the world’s ashy storm-petrel population breed on the Farallones, it’s clear something has to be done about the mice, which apparently arrived on the 19th-century boats of egg and seal hunters.

After years of research, and a 300-page EIS by Point Blue biologists, the USFWS concluded that the safest and most effective solution was to poison the little beasties with an airdrop, consisting of 1.5 tons of bait food laced with miniscule amounts of rodenticide (about 1.5 ounces in total). Predictions are that a small number of birds will die from eating the dead or dying mice, but the net result will be a win for the balance of nature and the ashy storm-petrel.

Predictably, an uproar ensued following announcement of the poison plans, and misleading headlines shocked readers into thinking 1.5 tons of poison would be dropped on the island.

At press time, the plan has yet to be implemented.

But while little mice are currently a big deal at the Devil’s Teeth, they’re invisible to the recreational visitor, who can’t get within 300 feet of the island anyway without very rare, very special permission.

And since there is literally no safe, accessible landing site on the islands, save in moments of dead calm (which usually happen on windless nights), the only way to come ashore is via a crane that plucks small craft from the water and deposits them on land. Makes you wonder how Sir Francis did it.

On an October visit, the Salty Lady – with Captain Jared Davis at the helm and distinguished Oceanic Society marine naturalist Izzy Szczepaniak interpreting everything in sight—circumnavigated the islands, from Sugarloaf rock to Chocolate Chip Inlet, to Fisherman’s Bay, North Landing and Tower Point, around to Great Murre Cave, Little Murre Cave and East Landing, than through the cut beside Saddle Rock into Mirounga Bay, fronting the marine terrace, a flat plain where the island’s only habitable dwellings were built—two Victorian two-story homes, constructed more than 140 years ago.

Imposing wave sets rolled in around Maintop as the Salty Lady pushed west past the islands (surfing scientists have long contemplated riding what has been dubbed “the perfect wave” right in Mirounga Bay, but for the sharks) and out toward the continental shelf. The 56-foot boat had already encountered at least 12 humpbacks on the way to Southeast Farallon, but two special treats were yet to come.

On the way past the North Farallon Islands— essentially an assemblage of mammoth rocks—a pod of Risso’s dolphins, looking not unlike pilot whales with blunt, rounded heads and mouths curved into a perpetual smile, followed the Salty Lady for several minutes, leaping nearly free of the water at times and revealing telltale scars all over their bodies, believed to be caused, in part, by the tentacles of the squid they eat almost exclusively.

A short way further on and Captain Jared announced a blue whale off the starboard bow, a treat for many in the group who had never seen one. Growing to 100 feet and almost 200 tons, blues are the biggest creatures to ever live, and were hunted almost to extinction until international protection was imposed in 1966. Recent estimates place today’s population at between 10,000 and 25,000 blues, with 1,647 counted most recently on the U.S. West Coast. Seeing this one’s back and tiny dorsal fin gleaming steel blue in the afternoon light was a special thrill.

During the homeward leg of the voyage, the Farallones slipped slowly back into the ocean mist until they disappeared from view, leaving image fragments to remember of a strangely severe and beautiful place, lost in time and space. As the Salty Lady approached the Golden Gate, the marine layer hung across the water like a fluffy curtain dividing one world from another.

Story: David Bolling

Photos: David Bolling, Kate Bolling, Steven Krause