i went on a Farallon Island cruise ship, got so sea sick didn't enjoy it at all, & you can't even get on the island! So bogus.
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
It is also accompanied by a cloud of the islands' ubiquitous kelp flies, which descend upon any nearby kayak, galleon, or fishing boat and settle, by the hundreds, upon every last passenger.
For the very few who make it this far, bobbing 100 yards from landfall is as close as the law permits one to travel to the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. The noxious odor and swarm of insects form your first, last, and only impression of the islands beyond. But, for those who can venture farther, additional joys await.
At first blush, tasks undertaken by the scientific researchers who have been the Farallones' sole residents for more than 40 years appear to have been devised by a vengeful god.
"I would set out every morning," says biologist Oscar Johnson, "to count every single bird on the island." He did this without the benefit of eyes in the back of his head, real or Nixonian. This chore, he says, was carried out three times a day.
Squads of researchers spending months on a rock a little smaller than Lincoln Park require a degree of patience and focus befitting a hostage negotiator. Methodically tallying every bird on the island is laborious enough — but how about doing so while not being seen? Rather than panic skittish island creatures, fieldworkers find themselves ducking behind rocks or walking circuitously long routes. "Sometimes it takes half an hour to move 50 feet," says Russ Bradley, the leader of Farallones studies for Point Blue Conservation Science (formerly known as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory).
For all that, on some days there aren't any birds to count. Sometimes there aren't any for days on end. And, then, there could be thousands.
After expending four hours and change in a fly-infested blind waiting for every last murre in a colony to stand so you can count the eggs, or straining to tally how many fish seabirds haul back to their nests — and further identifying what species of fish it is and estimating its size — researchers methodically transfer data into the ledger, as generations of biologists have done, every day, since April 1968. That's how it goes even if you don't spot a single bird; lack of data is still data.
This degree of repetition is difficult for many to handle, or even think about. But it provides the Farallones' vast data set with unprecedented strength. And, over many years, patterns emerge: "How many animals survive? How well do they reproduce? What do they eat? How has it changed through time?" says Bradley. "That individual task you do every day establishes a baseline so you can look at big-picture changes."
So near, yet so isolated, the Farallones are the center of an ecological Venn diagram. Hundreds of thousands of birds from all over the world arrive here — some unintentionally. Thousands of seals and sea lions dot the landscape and are surrounded by sharks and other marine creatures great and small. The effects of the world writ large work their way down to this stark realm where fastidious observers miss very little. Seabirds feeding their young with one species of fish as opposed to another reveals the long reach of commercial fishing quotas. Fluctuating bird counts indicate the effects of forestry management practices in the Pacific Northwest or Alaska. Tiny, vulnerable, and exposed: The Farallones are the ultimate microcosm.
Fair enough. People still get bored.
Spending days on end tallying nonexistent creatures or staring blankly at the sea waiting for a shark attack redefines tedium. And yet, monastic conditions of distinct, repeatable duties undertaken in the name of a higher cause lead to remarkable degrees of fulfillment and comfort — flies and guano be damned. Daily tasks, after all, aren't devised by a vengeful god, but gleaned from a schedule hanging on the kitchen door. A routine establishes order and order establishes contentment. "When you get up each morning, or even go to bed the night before, you know what you're doing," says biologist Pete Warzybok. "You know just what you're going to be doing every day."
The islands' regular 50 mph winds blow things off the researchers' aging New England-style domicile, but haven't yet blown it down. An almost eerie degree of affection for this place of self-imposed exile is revealed through the home's décor. Rather than adorn it with images of exotic, far-flung locales (or a certain nearby city), Farallones researchers concede their home is nearly exclusively graced with photographs taken on the island.
The distilled simplicity of life here grows intoxicating. You won't lose your keys because there aren't any locks on the doors. There's nothing to buy and little reason to pull out your wallet. There are no cars and the closest thing to rapid transit are kiddie bikes with pink tassels and little baskets in the front. Old Farallones hands recall a volunteer researcher in the 1980s who wouldn't leave the island until formally ordered to depart after the better part of a year.
"We had to eventually kick him off," says former Farallones researcher Peter Pyle. "A lot of things are taken care of here; you don't have to worry about food. If you're asocial to begin with, you're not missing anything. In fact, the intimacy of it is probably preferable to the scattered social scenes around cities."