You’ll Never Set Foot on These S.F. Islands — and That’s Okay

For 50 years, researchers have lived on the pure, wild reaches of the Farallon Islands roughly 30 miles from San Francisco. Here’s what it’s like to be the only humans allowed.

Just 30 miles away from San Francisco’s bitter housing debates and scooter-filled streets, a group of resident scientists comprise the only people allowed on the magnificently wild yet delicate Farallon Islands.

The rotating team of researchers come from Point Blue Conservation Science, a nonprofit that tracks climate change and has continuously maintained a presence on the islands — still technically part of San Francisco — for 50 years. But the group considers themselves lucky visitors, for the Farallon Islands don’t belong to humans.

Four small islands make up the of the 211-acre Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, which President Theodore Roosevelt created in 1909 to protect species reliant on the area. The Farallones may be rugged and put up a tough front to outsiders, but they’re a sensitive, fragile ecosystem that’s easily disturbed. For that reason, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not allow the general public onto the island, although whale tours offer views from a distance.

“It’s essentially an untouched gem out here, and we have an opportunity to be stewards for this island, do science, be so close to civilization and feel so remote at the same time,” says biologist Garrett Duncan, one of six individuals currently stationed on the island. ”I joke to people that I live on an island in the middle of the Pacific and I still get NPR traffic reports.”

Duncan started documenting shark attacks and migratory songbirds during the fall 2016 rotation — one of three each year — but he now researches mammals. One recent day was chock-full of pinniped censuses and crane training. (Without a proper harbor or even a dock, the crane is needed every couple weeks to launch a smaller 15-foot landing boat into the water to so it can be reloaded with supplies.)

Maps for Good/Point Blue/USFWS

While the Bay Area battles congested roads or delayed public transit, these researchers commute to work by hopping around to different study sites — after waking up at sunrise in two old lighthouse-keeper cottages. Their goal is simply to gather weather and environmental data and how it relates to the wildlife populations, from the sea lions and sharks to the largest seabird breeding colony in the continental United States, which also faces threats from climate change.

Point Blue’s long-term data sets have informed subsequent public policy, including the 1981 establishment of what’s now called the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, a 1987 ban on gill-net fishing in the Gulf of the Farallones and northern Monterey Bay, a 1993 state law that prevents hunting of great white sharks off the California Coast, and the expansion of California Marine Wildlife Protection Act regulations to the surrounding Farallones in 2010.

Pete Warzybok, who has spent more than 2,000 nights on the island since 2000, is most proud of spurring regulations to rebuild the population of the common murre, a waterbird that once numbered half a million before egg collecting and oil spills. Plus, Northern fur seals have repopulated exponentially since they returned to the island in the 1970s — rebounding after the island-wide slaughter in 1800s for their thick fur. We can still meet our human needs without being destructive, adds Warzybok, who studies the 300,000 seabirds careening around the islands.

“The Farallones used to have a lot of disturbance,” he says. “We know that [species] are resilient so if we can reduce impact and give them a chance to do their thing, they will bounce back.”

Former intern Jen Aragon holds a Rhinoceros Auklet in 2011 (Maps for Good/Point Blue/USFWS)

When researchers aren’t busy collecting data for legislators, they rotate cooking duties, play games, and tell stories of their times on the islands. Though the Farallones are far from quiet, they’re still remote. Researchers don’t spend more than two months there before returning to the mainland, where it can feel claustrophobic upon return.

Before the California Academy of Sciences set up a live webcam with strong wifi in 2007, the researchers used a radio phone with the second antenna in Bolinas. Both Warzybok and Duncan say that the internet signal is now stronger on the island, where they can now FaceTime and stream Netflix, than it is at home.

“It used to be very isolating, but now it’s a little more connected,” says Warzybok, who can now keep in better touch with friends and family — including his wife in Petaluma. “You’re not as immersed as you maybe once were.”

So how did the current group of scientists celebrate the holidays away from their families on an obscure island? By scavenging for Christmas tree ornaments from the plastic items gathered by seabirds, of course.

There are some nice toy cars every once in a while, Duncan says.

This is his second year supervising the winter crew, so he pretends it’s Christmas with his family in Modesto before setting sail for the Farallones. As for New Year’s Eve, the group can watch the fireworks display over the Embarcadero with the help of enormous binoculars (and clear enough skies).

Duncan says the islands are drastically different with each season and that he falls in love with the astonishing environment in a different way each time. Though most humans will never see for themselves, they can also learn to let this place remain uniquely pristine and valuable.

“It’s not a comfortable place for humans to be, and that’s also what makes it important for people to protect,” Warzybok says. “It’s really [wildlife’s] land, and we are the visitors there.”

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