Illustration by Audrey Fukuman.
Twenty-eight miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, a strange, two-faced figure patrolled the outermost scrap of land in San Francisco. Granted, this was a strange time, and San Francisco, the teeming beneficiary of a nation's worth of misfits fleeing as far west as they could go without sinking, was a strange place.
Yet if you were to go a little farther — if you were to traverse those 28 extra miles — you'd cross into an even stranger, primordial realm without ever crossing city limits.
The Farallon Islands are composed of half a dozen former hilltops inundated by melting glaciers; they jut out of the ocean along a treacherous eight-mile stretch and are aligned, neatly, like dice tossed from above. On only the most glorious of San Francisco days do they bother to emerge from the fog. There's not a lot of real estate to see here; the largest and only inhabitable island is just 0.15 square miles — not quite the size of the S.F. State campus.
The Farallones are not an inviting place, and San Francisco's earliest inhabitants appear to have kept their distance. Local Indians believed these ethereal specks on the horizon might be the domain of the dead, "an island naked, barren, and desolate ... swept with cursed winds and blinding acrid sea-spray." But in fact, the Farallones have always seethed with life and, naturally, death.
It took the intervention of Europeans to monetize the process.
For centuries, the Farallones were an open-air abattoir; anything that swam, crawled, waddled, or flew was slaughtered and sold, culminating in San Francisco's only lethal gun battle over eggs. By the late 20th century, however, this era of human predation waned. San Francisco moved on to other boom-and-bust industries, and its residents returned to shooting one another over more conventional matters.
The Farallones, however, remain unconventional.
Humans no longer venture here to despoil the natural state and kill the animals. The pendulum has shifted: Instead, scientists obsessively study and preserve that natural state — and hope the animals don't kill them.
Of the cacophony of sounds endemic to this place, perhaps the least welcome is the malevolent, cackling cry of a seagull declaring a turf war. There are two possible outcomes: Either the gull will propel itself into your head or it will intentionally defecate on you with uncanny accuracy. It was this situation that prompted biological researchers on the Farallones in the 1970s to transform themselves into two-faced, Janus-like figures by affixing a leering Richard Nixon mask facing backwards on their heads, appropriately discouraging the birds.
But not for long. Not unlike the American people, the gulls got wise to Nixon's tricks, and so, for the ensuing four decades, they've carpet-bombed Farallones interlopers with the impunity Nixon exercised in Cambodia.
As such, Farallones seabird researchers are swathed, head to toe, in rain gear. Collars are worn high and tight to prevent guano trickling down the neck, and men grow luxuriant beards to shield their faces (women suffer). Feces-smeared outer apparel is left hanging in the front room of the quaint, 1870s-era home inhabited by three to eight researchers year-round. Every week or so, clothes may be washed. Every four days, island-dwellers take a shower. Nature on the Farallones remains red in tooth and claw — but everything is coated in guano.
In the early 2000s, after 35-odd years of absorbing up to 20 seagull blows an hour, Farallones researchers devised a novel solution: helmets. As there was concern dislodged helmets would land on nests, a further innovation came along: chinstraps.
The technological metamorphosis reshaping San Francisco has been slow to reach an outpost where protective headgear is considered cutting-edge. The Farallones are wild and growing wilder, even as the city becomes more urbane. Within sight of the towering trees and pastoral lawns installed in an utter conquest of San Francisco's natural environment is a natural environment not so easily conquered.
The boat's engines throttle up and you pull into the mist. You glide by the verdant hills of Sausalito, shrouded in clouds and resembling a particularly upscale section of the Forest Moon of Endor. Lethargic harbor seals piled two-deep on a fire-engine-red buoy yawn as you cruise past and slip out the Golden Gate.
The hulking cargo ships lumbering alongside peel off for parts unknown, and, soon enough, only the gulls overhead and the black-headed murres bobbing nonchalantly in the waves are there to keep you company. The engines slow to a dull roar and, at a distance of not quite five miles, the craggy profile of the Farallones emerges from the fog. In silhouette, the largest island in the rugged chain resembles a roller coaster. Tower Hill, 350 feet high and topped with its eponymous squat lighthouse, looms behind a spread of unforgiving rocky terrain virtually devoid of flora — yet bustling with fauna. Pungent fauna.
This is the Farallones' olfactory welcome mat: Miles before the islands' features are discernible, the scent of the inhabitants wafts downwind over the waves.
The odor of seals and sea lions — and their copious excrement — calls to mind a horde of wet dogs. Acres of guano excreted since time immemorial emit a sharp, acrid scent reminiscent of summer days in an outhouse. Even a pleasant smell would be gag-inducing at this level of intensity. This is not a pleasant smell.
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.