Thirty miles west, one can catch a glimpse of the mysterious Farallon Islands when the marine layer lifts. The coastal by Miwok Indians called them the Islands of the Dead, and the Devil’s Teeth by Spanish mariners who dreaded the unseen rocks and fog shrouded spires of the Farallones. Named by explorer Juan Cabrillo, Farallones means sea stacks or rocks that jut from the sea, and have been the source of shipwrecks for centuries. The islands are also the hub of much of our local marine life, from plankton to seabirds to whales. Each year Shark Stewards leads trips into the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, with each voyage providing unique and memorable experiences collecting data and seeking sharks and wildlife during the months we term Sharktober.

Join us on a wildlife trip to the Devils Teeth in October!

These field trips introduce students to marine ecosystems, marine life and management challenges for both. Starting with estuarine ecosystems and marine geology we move out into the open ocean or the pelagic ecosystem. Using the new App Spotter Pro, we record the vessel’s track in real time and add observations of marine mammals, providing data for resource managers and scientists. This year we are seeing Humpback Whales feeding on anchovies in between the two towers beneath the Golden Gate in the line of ships. These whales are vulnerable to getting struck and killed by ships, such as what occurred to the 79 foot Blue Whale that washed up at Bolinas Beach this summer.

Near the historic lighthouse at Point Bonita, we view harbor seals and harbor porpoises and nesting cormorants, as we discuss plate tectonics and the unique geology of this juncture between the Pacific, North American and the former Farallon Plate that thrust up the Francisco Terrane that makes up the Marin Headlands. After seeing harbor seals and harbor porpoises foraging in the exterior bay, we discuss plate tectonics and the unique geology of this juncture between the Pacific, North American and the former Farallon Plate that thrust up the Francisco Terrane that makes up the Marin Headlands. Heading north up the coast we observe Bottlenose dolphins and Humpback whales, surrounded by shearwaters and murres all feasting on the anchovies. With students we collect oceanographic measurements, comparing salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity and other parameters for comparison inside and outside the Bay, as well as plankton tows to identify the base of the food chain.

Being on the water in the National Marine Sanctuary, and in our California Marine Protected Areas helps our guests understand the importance of marine ecosystems as well as management issues. Scores of salmon boats fish among the feeding whales with several close encounters observed. It takes 3 hours to cross the Gulf and as one travels farther west the water transforms from the green chop of near shore to the rolling swells of the open sea. Land falls away and the view opens into a limitless horizon.

Black albatross spread their 7 foot wingspans, veering and dipping fish from the waves. Hailing from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands – now part of the Papahanaumokuakea- a Marine National Monument protected but currently under threat under the current administration, these birds only come to land to mate and lay their single eggs on the ground. Sooty Shearwaters shoot past, migrants from New Zealand to feed in the rich waters of our Sanctuary.

Several species of cetaceans are found near the Farallon Islands, most frequently California Grey whales, blue whales, and humpback whales. As part of the Fish and Wildlife system, the Farallon Islands are an important reserve protecting a huge seabird colony. The islands’ position in the highly productive California Current and Eastern Pacific upwelling region, as well as the absence of other large islands that would provide suitable nesting grounds, result in a seabird population of over 250,000. Twelve species of seabird and shorebird nest on the islands.

The rocks of Fisherman’s Bay are loaded with sea lions (California and the larger golden Stellar’s) as well as Northern Fur Seals all recovering from near extinction by protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Five species of pinniped come to shore on the islands, and in some cases breed. Others haul out to give birth and mate including harbor seals and the white shark’s favorite food, northern elephant seals. The water is rich with plankton including the krill so important to many forms of marine life from the tiny Cassin’s Auklet to the mighty Blue Whale. Cruising by the shark cage-diving boat we were informed that two predation events (not shark attacks!) had occurred last week near the island.

Biologists with Point Blue (formerly Point Reyes Bird Observatory) keep watch from the old lighthouse, recording the bird and pinniped population, as well as people who enter the Sanctuary waters near the island. They also record the white shark observation program, identifying individuals and recording predations.

The Sanctuary regulations require mariners to stay 100 yards away from the islands and outlying rocks to avoid disturbing nesting and breeding seabirds. State regulations ban fishing south of SE Farallon Island, middle rock and North Farallon Islands. We headed uphill in the light wind and visited Point Reyes and Drakes Bay where another haul out of elephant seals exists. The exterior edge of Point Reyes is also a state marine protected areas with a 1000 foot exclusion. The protected Drakes Bay, part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, waters swarmed with cormorants, pelicans and shearwaters. Combined with federal protections are state marine protected areas established under the California Marine Life Protection Act.

It is always an adventure out at the island and Gulf, and these trips leave our guests amazed at the diversity and abundance of marine life so close to the city of San Francisco, and gives us a better appreciation of the continued challenges to restore and protect wildlife and ecosystems. All of this wildlife is currently at risk as the Administration considers opening the Sanctuary to oil and gas development, and reducing or eliminating the Marine National Sanctuaries of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific Remote Islands.  

Sharktobe rWhite Shark

We call the return of the sharks to the Sanctuary Sharktober, and instead of maligning the white sharks that return to our waters following a two thousand mile migration, we are celebrating the shark with a series of education, talks and film events.

Join Shark Stewards on a Farallon Island Expedition during Sharktober, discussing sharks and conservation, collecting data as well as watching for whales and other marine life.

Shark Stewards is a non-profit project of the Earth Island Institute.

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