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.
“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.”
A degree of recognition of that volunteer's mindset flickers within every long-serving Farallones biologist. One day after disembarking the island this month following a standard six-week haul, Warzybok found himself visiting Ikea at the behest of his significant other. The home-furnishings megastore is not so much smaller than the island he'd just departed. For Warzybok, it's certainly less homey.
“People come to the Farallones and think it's an assault on the senses: The birds calling, the flies coming at you, the seals barking — and the smell,” he says. “For me, coming back on the mainland, that's the assault.”
Life is so much simpler when everything you need to do is written on the kitchen door.
Nestled into a secluded cove near the breakers on the Farallones' main island is a most curious source of fresh water. The “Amber Spring” produces a seep tasting of “unsweetened lemonade.” Nineteenth-century newspaper accounts of the brown liquid attribute it with the ability to, simultaneously, cure diarrhea and serve as a mild laxative.
That's a neat trick. But for the early inhabitants of the Farallones, imbibing this tonic was about as good as it got.
Today's biologists marvel about the islands as nature's Sistine Chapel; there's so much here for them to study. But the Farallones, themselves, serve as a study in context. For those punching the clock on harsh, menial jobs or, worse yet, stationed involuntarily on the islands with the Navy or Coast Guard, life could be extraordinarily bleak.
On a clear day, though, they could still see the city, tantalizing and tantalizingly close (San Francisco's quirky city limits encompass not only the Farallones but portions of Red Rock near the Richmond Bridge). With a telescope, you can detect the traffic lights switching from red to green. You can see the tiny cars moving on the Golden Gate Bridge — for observers on shore's edge, the bridge's roadway actually drops down below the sea line, while its towers majestically soar up out of the water. There is grandeur in this view of life: Every October, for just a few days, the setting sun reflects off the seaward-facing windows in the Richmond and Sunset and all the city blazes.
As the gull flies, you're closer to San Francisco than folks in Novato or Redwood City. But this only enhances the sense of isolation and despair; Alcatraz wasn't the only rock-mounted penitentiary in agonizing proximity to city lights.
“I'm getting awful tired of this loneliness; it is almost as bad as the state prison,” penned forlorn lighthouse keeper Amos Clift in the late 1850s. “I had rather live among society and be poorer than Job's Turkey than live where I am and have a fortune. This is the truth.
“After the work is done in the morning we have nothing of any account to do until sunset and I assure you it is hard work to while away the hours.”
Misery loves company, and, on the Farallones, the company kept each other miserable. Bile-strewn 19th-century lighthouse records reveal a colony of malcontents who hated their lots in life only slightly less than each other: Mr. Van Bergen was drunk, asleep on his watch and abusive … Mr. Sherwood used abusive language, ordered me to fight him. … Mrs. Dow passed the remark that all Lighthouse people are crummy.
Imagine how awfully everyone would have behaved if there weren't a source of diarrhea-curing laxatives on the island.
In 1579, Sir Francis Drake visited what he called the “Isles of St. James.” That name didn't stick; posterity has favored “Los Farallones de los Frailes” (The Cliffs of the Friars). Drake did, however, christen a centuries-long tradition of vagabonds killing and carting off anything unable to evade capture.
The grim tally of animals slaughtered on a rock smaller than a municipal golf course is staggering. During a single campaign around 1811, perhaps 150,000 fur seals were culled from the island. Their pelts could fetch an astounding $2.50 apiece in China (or around $1,200 today). A sole otter pelt was worth $40 (upwards of $20,000). Rapaciousness ensued. By 1834, Russian seal hunters on the Farallones found fewer than 60.
Other animals were similarly commoditized and hunted to near-extinction. In 1854, egg-gatherers on the islands pilfered some half a million murre nests in two months alone. Perhaps 14 million hefty, oblong, blue-speckled eggs were carted off the Farallones in the late 19th century. This triggered price wars — and real wars: In 1863, a flotilla of armed interlopers attempted to storm the island and wrest it from the quasi-legal egging establishment. A 20-minute firefight ensued; two men were shot dead (more would have been if the invaders had managed to deploy the four-pound cannon they ditched in a disorganized retreat).
War and its aftermath would touch the Farallones again — and may continue to do so for tens of thousands of years to come.
Between 1946 and 1970, the Navy dumped thousands of 55-gallon drums containing radioactive waste into the Gulf of the Farallones. These barrels were not exactly forged to withstand ocean conditions forever, and certainly weren't helped by the sailors shooting at the floaters until they took on water and sank.
There was no barrel big enough to contain the irradiated hull of the U.S.S. Independence, a light aircraft carrier situated less than 600 yards from the 1946 atomic blast that leveled Bikini Atoll. In 1951, frustrated by failed attempts to cleanse the immolated ship at Hunters Point, the Navy towed the 10,000-ton vessel through the Golden Gate and scuttled it — but not before loading it with additional radioactive material.
The looming fallout remains ominously uncertain. Suffice to say it could leave more of a mark on the islands than bullet holes and broken eggs.
A looming sense of disaster has long pervaded this city. And yet, for centuries, San Francisco has served as a beacon and a refuge.
Perhaps this is fitting. It's been happening on the Farallones since the dawn of time.
Most days, one bird more or fewer tallied during a survey won't make a world of difference. Yet, on April 25 of last year, a most notable bird soared onto the island. With a wingspan approaching 6 feet, sleek white plumage, and a face like a Seattle totem pole, a northern gannet stands out most anywhere.
It stands out more, however, in the Pacific Ocean, where one had never before been seen. They're typically found in Scotland's Orkney Islands, 5,000 miles to the east.
This is an extreme case, but hardly atypical; hundreds of bird species have been spotted on the Farallones that really should have turned left at Albuquerque. Disoriented birds heading over the open ocean alight on the Farallones, the only visible land for miles in any direction. A wayward golden-cheeked warbler (the only species of bird to breed, exclusively, in Texas) in a San Francisco backyard might be hard to spot — but, on the Farallones, there are only two trees and, rest assured, a scientist will be counting the birds in them, several times a day.
The gannet has been thriving in its Scotland-away-from-Scotland roost for 16 months (though, like so many San Franciscans, it's struggling romantically).
Evolutionarily, it makes sense for a small percentage of birds to instinctively migrate in the wrong direction. If just a small percentage of this small percentage can establish new colonies, the species will be well-served. On an individual level, however, most such birds are ill-served.
After being spotted on the Farallones, they will pass through, to oblivion.
Just a day after the northern gannet was sighted on the Farallones, the occasion was thoroughly and professionally documented, complete with high-resolution photos, on the blog maintained by the on-island researchers. Everyone really does have a blog these days.
High-speed Internet on the Farallones is a far cry from the conditions facing Clift and his Amber Spring-sipping colleagues. Yet, to the modern observer, the privations of hapless 19th-century folk actually seem less antiquated than the technology Bradley, Warzybok, and others suffered through in the primeval days of the 1990s and early 2000s. They had a single, text-based e-mail account serving every researcher on the island, operated via the nostalgically archaic Pine system.
Calls to the mainland required a VHF radio connection to the marine operator. Intimate talk was made at your own discretion, as anyone with a VHF radio could listen in.
This month, a call to biologist Ryan Berger on the island's satellite phone was clear enough to catch shrieking gulls in the background. “A lot of people here have iPhones now,” he says in a voice that, but for the din of seabirds, could have come from the next room. “You can be anywhere and check on your little device.” Researchers coping all day with angry birds can now spend evenings playing Angry Birds.
Here, as in the city 28 miles east, inhabitants are forced to accept the mixed blessing of connectivity on demand. The lamentations of the islands' earlier residents provide a check against romanticizing a pre-technological age, as does the satisfaction of Skyping loved ones without an audience. But a place demanding constant focus doesn't mesh well with a constantly updating Twitter feed. And on an esoteric isle drawing like-minded, esoteric people — “the Island of the Misfit Toys,” says Bradley with a grin — something is definitely being lost.
“There were more face-to-face conversations. We tend to stream Netflix now,” says Berger. “The stimulating conversations that used to happen back in the day, they don't happen now.” Adds Warzybok, “After dinner, instead of us all telling stories and talking about life experiences, people scatter and look at YouTube videos or update Facebook.” A place like no other is becoming that much more like everywhere else.
On the Farallones these days, every man really is an island unto himself.
Slaughtering native island creatures has gone out of vogue among the Farallones' human denizens. But for the thriving non-native species that long ago infiltrated the islands, it never got old.
In the 1970s, scientists on the Farallones managed to do what a troop of club-wielding Navy men 50 years prior could not — the last invasive rabbit on the islands was killed in January of '75. This was done with virtually no public input, unimaginable in the present era. “You'd go out with a rifle,” says biologist Ron LeValley, a volunteer on the island in 1968 who returned as a staffer in the '70s. “One of our old biologists was really good at that. The Coast Guard helped us, too.”
The current scourge of the Farallones is mice. But even if the rodents could be dispatched via firearms, research biologists are no longer encouraged to strafe the landscape. Instead, this month, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife released an Environmental Impact Statement. It's quite a statement: It required a decade of effort and clocks in at nearly 900 pages. “This is,” touts Bradley, “one of the most, if not the most, intensive environmental planning processes for rodent eradication in world history.” Yet, for all that, the options presented are limited: Inundate the island with poison pellets or cohabitate with mice.
The Farallon mouse population cyclically explodes, before rain and a lack of resources lead to a nightmarish crash. The island writhes with mice in the fall months; Warzybok caught 24 in one room overnight, manually resetting the trap each time it snapped. “You don't even need to bait them,” he says. “They just run into them there are so many.” In fact, the mice bait the traps themselves. The dead are quickly devoured by their own (at up to 730 mice per acre, the Farallones' population is 35 to 180 times more concentrated than typical areas, and is the densest mouse infestation of any island in the world).
Unintended consequences beget unintended consequences. The smorgasbord of rodents induces burrowing owls to loiter on the Farallones instead of migrating to the mainland. The precipitous mouse population crash then spurs procrastinating owls to prey on storm petrels — tiny, threatened birds that can live up to 35 years. Of course, aerial poison bombardments of a wildlife refuge allow for ever more unintended consequences.
But even if the Farallones aren't overrun by mice, humanity's grasp on the island may one day slip. Its original inhabitants are growing restless. And they do not play nicely with others.
If the cackling of a territorial gull is the most unwelcome sound to researchers' ears, the sheep-like bleat of an enraged fur seal isn't so far behind. Fieldworkers carry poles to stave off aggressive pinnipeds. But a seal population reaching even a fraction of the islands' pre-Drake count would call for something other than poles. It'd necessitate an evacuation.
“Fur seals could drastically impact our existence on this island,” says veteran researcher Jim Tietz. This might not occur for decades, if ever. But, if it does, “It'll be an exciting day. The Farallones will have recovered enough that we'll have to leave. They'll be in a state wild enough we can't coexist out there.”
Tietz's time to flee to the mainland may one day come. But you're shoving off now: The boat's engines throttle up and you pull out of the mist.
Always just an arm's length away, the islands are increasingly beyond our reach. The Farallones are being engulfed by nature as assuredly as they're enveloped by the ever-present fog. Their craggy features gently blur as the islands recede in your wake.
And then they're gone.
SF Weekly is grateful to The Commonwealth Club for providing passage on a boat journey to the Farallon National Marine Sanctuary led by Michael Ellis of Footloose Forays. Many of the historical references in this article were gleaned from Peter White's The Farallon Islands: Sentinels of the Golden Gate.