Few people think of the waters off San Francisco as mysterious, but just offshore are a small group of islands rooted in history, drama and danger.
Frequently shrouded by fog and engulfed by foam and waves, the Farallon Islands are a small group of rocky islands located 28 miles off the coast of San Francisco. Called the Devils Teeth by ancient mariners, these rugged, remote rocky islands were named by Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1539 and Sir Francis Drake 1591, these islands were charted by the Portugese mariner Vizcaino in 1601. The islands have been host to many disasters and they are assiduously avoided by sailors fearing shipwreck. Los Farallones means sea cliffs or stacks, aptly describing the severe rocks and islets that make up the small island chain. Countless ships were fated to tear their bottoms on the submerged rocks creating a watery grave for the hapless sailors. The local native people of the Miwok tribe called the islands the Islands of the Dead. Modern day fishermen and sailors give the islands a wide berth, yet tragically the rocks claimed more lives when the racing yacht Low Speed Chase struck rocks while rounding Southeast Farallon Island in 2012.
Not only do these islands attract sharks, seabirds and marine mammals, they have a magnetic hold on many. Swimmer Joseph Locke completed a solo swim from the islands to the Golden Gate last year. Fellow Night Train Swimmer Kim Chambers sucessfully completed the same swim this year and her fellow Night Train Swimmer Simon Dominguez was turned away after swimming 25 miles from the Golden Gate by the Landlord, a great white shark.
Yet these craggy wind carved rocks host some of the most abundant and diverse marine life in the world.
The Farallon Islands host the largest seabird breeding colony in the continental United States, with over 300,000 breeding sea birds during the spring and summer. The diverse array of wildlife that can be found on and around the islands includes: thirteen species of breeding shorebird and seabirds, five species of pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), visiting land birds, invertebrates, and even an endemic salamander. Sharks, whales, and a variety of other marine organisms are also abundant in the surrounding Pacific Ocean waters. Half of the global population of Ashy Storm-Petrels breed on the Islands and they also host the world’s largest colony of Western Gulls and Brandt’s Cormorants. Most notably, the Farallon Islands hosts one of the largest aggregations of Great White Sharks in the world.
The North Farallones, Middle Farallon and Noonday Rock were established as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1909 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Southeast Farallon Island and West End were granted protection status in 1969. The public is not allowed on the island in order to preserve and protect the sensitive birds and marine mammals that live there. The waters are protected as part of our National Marine Sanctuary system, and a percentage as California Marine Protected Areas.
This rugged island group is located within the cold California Current which flows from the north (British Columbia) to the south and along the edge of the continental shelf. Here the Pacific Ocean plunges to 2,000 m depths. Upwelling occurs in the spring, resulting in large phytoplankton blooms. Phytoplankton are eaten by zooplankton, which are eaten by fish, birds, and marine mammals. The fish humans depend upon and enjoy for food need healthy populations of krill, a type of zooplankton, to survive.
Today, wildlife breed on these offshore islands because they are not threatened by predators and human disturbances and their populations are increasing. The islands are only accessible to a few wildlife biologists and land managers for conducting ongoing wildlife research. Since 1968, PRBO Conservation Science (now Point Blue) has been conducting research, monitoring the wildlife, and managing the island. In order to minimize environmental impact from the few people allowed on the island, the US Fish & Wildlife Service and PRBO close off certain parts of the island entirely to humans.
Each year Shark Stewards leads fall “Sharktober” exclusive wildlife expeditions, teaching about the history of the Farallones, the natural history of the sharks, whales and other wildlife and experiencing the mysteries of the Devil’s Teeth first hand.
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