California islands: The bird paradise of the Farallons

SAN FRANCISCO – The Salty Lady pitched and rolled, reared up to unsettling verticality and slammed down with a percussive thud. Again and again, literally ad nauseam, the boat was tossed by 30-knot winds and the rhythmic swelling of the waves, the Pacific anything but on this day.

Yet, this sturdy, workmanlike 56-foot fishing boat, employed by the nonprofit Oceanic Society to show eco-minded tourists the wild and untamed splendor of the Farallon Islands 27 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, kept plugging along with engine belching, enduring wave after white-capped wave, trough and crest repeating like a sadistic amusement park ride.

Two hours in, and barely 12 miles out to sea, Jared Davis, the boat's captain, came on the loud speaker.

"Sorry, folks. This just happens sometimes," he said. "I've contacted some of the other boats out there, and it's too rough. We've got to turn back."

Nature, of course, is not always accommodating to schedules, and that's especially true when it comes to visiting to the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. No one, save a few biologists studying seabirds and marine mammals, may step foot on the jagged granite outcroppings, yet hard-core birders and curious adventurers still yearn to glimpse these wild islands from afar.

No one was initially more excited – and, ultimately, more disappointed – than John Elliott, who came from Illinois because the Farallons, a.k.a. Farallones, were "my bucket list kind of thing."

Alas, he didn't even get to unsheath his binoculars.

So just getting within a quarter-mile of the Farallones' shore – the closest that tourist boats may get lest they disturb the delicate habitat – can be a chore, as well as a nautical achievement. Sometimes, weekend excursions are aborted midtrip, sometimes canceled even before setting sail. It's entirely weather-dependent.

But a week after the Salty Lady's abbreviated trip, the winds had calmed enough for another attempt. This time, it took slightly more than three hours for tourists, as well as three scientists from San Jose State University lugging food and other provisions, to see the islands' jutting peaks peeking out on the widening horizon.

Located near the edge of the continental shelf, where depth changes from hundreds of feet to thousands, the Farallon Islands can be smelled before they're seen.

A mile or two out, the sea birds serve as greeters, sort of a swirling symphony of squawks and trills. Whereas the slate-gray Pacific is mostly absent of birds for most of the trip, save the occasional low-flying gull, the waters soon are populated by bobbing forms – common murres, auklets and the cacophonous gulls.

Then you're hit with the smell, a bracing, ammoniacal odor that persists even in the windiest conditions and, on relatively calm days such as this, has the nostril-scouring properties of wasabi.

Once the Farallons are in full view, you can see the source of the smell. The light-brown hillsides are stained white with vast coatings of western gull guano mingling with the ample deposits of the common murre – the islands' two main inhabitants.

Soon, you ignore the odor and marvel at an impressive avian array. Seen best through binoculars, but clearly visible even without, the main southeast island is a veritable birdland. You had been told beforehand by naturalist Roger Harris that the Farallones are home to the biggest sea bird colony south of Alaska, with more than 300,000 marine birds. But impressive statistics alone cannot prepare you for the sheer numbers perched on rocky shoals, burrowed into the hillsides, nesting on peaks, swooping and circling their domain.

"There's no real estate on this island that's not occupied by an animal," Harris said. "There's no single place on the island where you can sit down and not disturb an animal. Even the shelves in the caves are occupied with murres. If you take your binoculars and look inside, you'll see the shelves, row after row, in the cave. Murres nest there."

Murres, large auks whose black-and-white tuxedoed features resemble penguins, speckle the Farallon hillsides like boxy houses in South San Francisco. Sometimes they nest so close to one another in these murre condos that they rub wings with neighbors as they lay eggs the size of softballs.

"They come back to the exact same spot, year after year, at 4-inch nesting sites," said Ryan Berger, lead winter biologist for Point Blue Conservation Science (formerly Point Reyes Bird Observatory). "So if there's a rock slide, or someone visits that area and disturbs the area, the murres have a tough time locating their specific spot."

Once, like many of the 13 bird species found on the island, the murres were threatened by human intervention. A post-Gold Rush desire for eggs in San Francisco, where no chickens existed, led entrepreneurs to sail to the Farallones, where thousands of murre eggs lay. Until the late 1800s, when they were banished, egg pickers decimated the murre population.

"Fourteen million murre eggs were removed from the island," Harris said. "But the murres bounced back. Just look at them."

A hearty bunch, now numbering close to 250,000, the murres also endured oil spills (the islands are in a major shipping channel) in the 1980s.

"They are fragile but resilient," Berger said. "Things are looking really good with our common murre colony."

Pelagic plenitude extends beyond the murres. Birders aboard the Salty Lady harbored favorites they wanted to spot, species almost never seen on the mainland. Vanessa Hammond of Burlingame and couple Steve Buffi and Anne Waters from Walnut Creek were keen on seeing puffins, a colorful, 15-inch sea bird mostly found in Alaska.

Shortly after Capt. Davis cut the engine and let the boat drift to encourage people to gawk at the sea birds, Buffi excitedly approached Harris in the bow.

Buffi: "I saw one, I think. It definitely was not a murre."

Harris: "What color was the beak?"

Buffi: "Orange, at the base."

Harris: "Hmm."

Buffi: "It had to be a puffin. I'll find him again."

And he did. Both Harris and Berger confirmed it. A tufted puffin, black with a thick, horned orange bill and white facial markings augmented with a daubing of yellow, floated along the surface an eighth of a mile offshore.

Much activity ensued onboard as passengers snapped photos and mentally crossed another species off their lists.

But the real buzz, something that even had the scientists onboard talking, was the rarer-than-rare sighting of a northern gannet, native to the Atlantic Ocean. It arrived uninvited in late April 2012 and perched on a guano-covered islet called Sugarloaf. At first, Berger said, scientists on the Farallones thought they were mistaken. No way a northern gannet could make its way this far west and south.

But its 40-inch white- bellied body with black wingtips, a light-brown head and blue-black beak was unmistakable.

"We just had our first 'gannetversy,' " Berger said. "We're not really sure how it got here. It could be that it hitched a ride on a boat from the Panama Canal. But more likely, we felt that, with warming temperatures and less sea ice (in the Arctic), it followed the water line (west), because these guys don't like to fly over land. It's just extraordinary."

Extraordinary, too, for the Salty Lady's passengers. They gathered around Buffi and Harris, the first to spot the gannet through high-powered binoculars.

"Look, look," Buffi said. "It's that big white bird with the tawny head. Follow my finger. It's about 80 percent up (the islet), right at the pile of rocks atop that perch. It's next to that gull."

That didn't exactly narrow the search down, since gulls seemingly perched on every outcropping and stretch of scree not inhabited by murres.

Eventually, though, even the most clueless among the group spotted it.

During the spring and summer months on the Farallons, spotting rare birds is the height of excitement. Action really picks up in the fall, when great white sharks return to the islands in large numbers to feast upon the elephant seals.

Berger, who spends most of his time on the Farallon Islands in the winter months when the shark attacks decrease and the elephant seal breeding takes hold, said much of the scientists' work revolves around sea birds, not the sharks.

The three biologists heading to the island on the Salty Lady, for example, had specialties. Emma Kelsey would study Cassin's auklets, a small gray diving bird. Bret Robinson would conduct a survey of island insects. And Scott Shaffer, assistant professor of biological sciences, would study gulls.

A maximum of eight researchers at a time can live and work on the island, as deemed by state Department of Fish and Wildlife officials. The human population is limited so as not to disturb the habitat. Those fortunate enough to score a field assignment say it's both rugged and easy living on the island.

Rugged in that the winds and storms and rocky landscape make it impossible to build a dock. So the three researchers from San Jose State attached their small boat to a giant crane and were hoisted 50 feet into the air and up on an island ledge.

That, in itself, was as uncommon an occurrence for most people as spotting a northern gannet. So, too, was the chance for amateur marine mammal and avian buffs to chat up the biologists.

"It's another world out there, really," Kelsey said. "Since there's only three to eight of us, we create sort of a little family. We take turns making dinner."

Robinson said there's Internet access in the two houses originally built for lighthouse keepers in the late 1800s.

"We'll watch a movie or Skype with people back home," he said.

Still, it's not exactly sipping mai tais on Maui. Berger, who came aboard from the skiff on which the three from San Jose State departed, apologized for his scruffy appearance. He was just concluding a six-week stretch studying seabirds and was headed to the mainland for a two-week respite before cycling through again.

"As remote field locations go, it's pretty good," he said. "We've got diesel generators but 90 percent of our power comes from solar (panels). We collect all our own water and really conserve it. That's why we only shower every four days. I apologize if I smell."

The pungency wasn't Berger so much as the gull guano wafting from the island. The smell and the omnipresent kelp flies swirling about may have led some on the Salty Lady to abandon fantasies of making the Farallones their home.

Many of those flies caught a ride back to the mainland, as the Salty Lady turned and headed east for the three-hour return trip. A few of the passengers killed time by swatting the annoying little buggers, but most maintained vigilant watch for whales (no luck), dolphins (zilch) and less-publicized species (such as an albatross unfurling its 6-foot wingspan and alighting on the waves.)

And, as the Salty Lady chugged back under the Golden Gate, tufted puffins, northern gannets, rhinoceros auklets and common murres gave way to another curious sight, which got binoculars poised and cameras clicking: wetsuited windsurfers enjoying a breezy afternoon on the bay.


Location: 27 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge

Size: Seven islands, 211 acres. Largest is the southeast island, 0.11985 square miles and 375 feet high.

Population: Three to eight marine biologists, as well as the largest seabird nesting colony in the contiguous United States.

Visiting: Closed to public; one of 66 national wildlife refuges.

History: Officially part of San Francisco, the Farallon Islands were discovered by American Indians, who called them "Islands of the Dead." Explorer Juan Francisco de Bodega renamed them "Los Farallones de los Frailes" – "The Cliffs of the Friars." In the early 1800s, New England and Russian fur traders killed most of the northern fur seals. In the mid-1800s, egg pickers arrived and decimated eggs of the common murre to sell to San Francisco restaurants. By the late 1960s, the Farallons had been declared a wildlife refuge. In 1972, an automated lighthouse was installed.


The nonprofit Oceanic Society offers tours of the seabirds and marine mammals of the Farallon Islands, along with whale watching, each Saturday and Sunday through October. Cost is $125. For reservations and more information, go to and click under "whale watching."


From Humboldt Bay on down to Coronado, California boasts scores of islands, many of them habitable and welcoming to tourists, some remote and forbidding.

Over the next four weeks, we will visit four of the more noteworthy and popular islands for tourists.

Today: The Farallon Islands, 27 miles west of San Francisco

June 23: Angel Island in San Francisco Bay

June 30: The Channel Islands off Ventura and Santa Barbara

July 7: Santa Catalina Island, 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles

Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
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