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Farallon Islands Whale Watching Cruise

Saturday, July 26, 2003

With all the remodeling on our property this year, the money just hasn't been available to take a decent vacation. But fortunately, we live in an area where there's plenty to do locally and in fact one would spend a lifetime seeing all there is to see within a hundred mile radius of our home.

So, for Pat's 53rd birthday, I decided to take us on a daytrip that would cross off one more thing from our list of "one of these days." On a very clear day from the East Bay hills, you can see the Farallon Islands popping above the horizon on the ocean, twenty-six miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge. In the seven years I've lived here, I've seen the islands from shore twice, possibly three times.

Nothing more than barren rocks, devoid of vegetation, the highest peak on the largest, Southeast Island, rises 326 feet above the water. The islands are a National Wildlife Refuge closed to the public but manned by a handful of University of California research scientists who monitor the abundant wildlife that inhabit them. At its widest extremity, the island is barely 1/2 mile long. So, why the fascination with a couple of barren rocks out in the Pacific Ocean? The name: Farallon National Wildlife Refuge & Wilderness (the federal designation) and Farallon Islands State Game Refuge. The islands are populated by seals, sea lions, puffins, terns, cormorants, murres, and a plethora of other bird species. And the waters surrounding the islands are a popular feeding ground for a variety of whales.

But, this time, let's have Pat tell the story:

One Friday evening after I got home from work, Lee and I decided to relax on the back patio. The evening was warm and we're just sitting, talking, having a drink when Lee pops up and says, "Do you want to know what your birthday present is?" I said, "No, not really." Up until now I purposely hadn't said anything about my birthday. We drive each other crazy trying to guess or figure out what to give each other for special occasions since we don't really need or want anything; at least I don't and I am sure Lee feels the same way.

Lee continued, "Well, I feel the urge to tell you because you need to prepare for it." This is a week before my birthday. "First, what color do you prefer: red or green?" I think for a minute and say, "Red." Lee pulled out a small plastic bag containing a red poncho. "I'm taking you on a cruise," and says we are going to the Farallon Islands, a small group of islets, actually just rocks, 26 miles outside the Golden Gate. Lee added, "I really want to get my own picture of the lighthouse out there."

He read to me the instructions accompanying the tickets he's holding which outline what we are to do, bring, dress… the whole ball of wax. I started getting excited, never having been out there. My dad and brother used to go deep-sea fishing in that area years back, but I never accompanied them. My to-do list was to get a back pack, film for my camera, and make sandwiches for the trip.

My alarm went off at 5:45 a.m. on Saturday, July 26th. Lee got up and we packed and dressed for the trip. We had to be at the Marina Green in San Francisco by 7:30 a.m. The weather was foggy and cool; seeing the water from the bay bridge, it looked very cold and a little rough. We arrived on time and mingled with the others assembled for our journey, including a group of gay Sierra Club hikers, all dressed for cold weather and carrying back packs, binoculars, cameras… the works.

There is a lot of small talk while waiting for our guide from the Oceanic Society, Ginger, to arrive. Yes, I know Ginger, a three hour tour, Ha ha ha. We had a laugh about it too. She took thirty minutes to tell us about what to expect on board our 65 foot boat, the Superfish. So, we board at 8:30 and off we go into the bay and out through the Golden Gate.

I have been on the bay many times and have gone under the Golden Gate Bridge, but this time it was particularly special for me, something Lee and I hadn't done together before, a new adventure to put into our book of memories. It is quite a sight to go under the Golden Gate Bridge, seeing the light fog drifting over the hills and the gray water around us. Seagulls trail along behind as we pass other small boats. The weather isn't that cold; the spray of the water is refreshing.

Right off one of the tourists from Indiana, a young girl about fifteen, got seasick. I was in the Navy and accustomed to rough seas on large ships and I never really got seasick nor saw someone get as green as this young lady did.

Golden Gate Bridge

The trip was a little rough, not bad. But when we stopped to see a puffin floating on the water, it became rough, the small Superfish rocking and rolling all over; our little miss was down for the count. I felt sorry for her and tried to help her out. Lee was all over the boat talking to people and taking pictures.

When Lee got hungry and entered the cabin to get a sandwich, I was having too much fun looking around at the world splashing by. The cabin had two small tables on one side and a larger one on the other plus the Head (restroom). When I finally walked in, Lee was eating a sandwich and I sat down across the table from him next to another guy making his own sandwich. Don't know what happened next. I can't smell things usually, but whatever this guy was putting on his food went right to my nose and I literally jumped up as my stomach did a U-turn. I got queazy and stayed that way for about an hour or so. Needless to say I was sympathetic to the young girl.

Southeast Farallon Island

Murres and cormorants share a rocky slope

Seals crowd the rocks
Not knowing what to expect when we got to the islands, I was in awe of the bleak rock outcroppings in the middle of the ocean. Birds everywhere one looked. Sea-lions and seals resting on the rocks close to the water.

We had a marine biologist on board whom we were dropping off at the main island to take measurements of nesting birds. As we approached offshore, a small skiff came out to pick up the biologist and supplies. While moored alongside our larger vessel, the skiff's skipper told us of some of the interesting things going on and around the island during the past few days; they hadn't seen the sun for more than 10 minutes in over a week. Civilians aren't allowed on the island because it is a wildlife preserve as well as a scientific research center.

The Farallones have no safe landing spot, even for a small skiff. When it returned to the island, a large crane lifted the skiff with its two passengers and supplies out of the water, swung it around, and placed it onshore. It was strange and fun to see how this was done and how they managed to conquer this rocky shoreline problem .

We sailed around the island observing all the birds and wildlife. The place is literally covered with birds. The rocks are dripping with bird guano (good fertilizer), no vegetation to speak of, maybe some moss, and two trees planted beside the twin houses sitting on a flat part of the island. Everything was in shades of gray, white, brick, and beige.

Seal Rock

Researchers' Quarters
Maintop Island
As we continued to sail around the area, some sea lions were frolicking behind the boat. Then someone yelled, "Whale, nine o'clock!" A humpback was out splashing around a few hundred yards away. One never realizes how small they are until seeing a whale swimming so effortlessly in the ocean, a wonderful sight.
Someone else yelled, "Whale, three o'clock!" and, as we looked we were surrounded by blue whales. One even came around fifty feet off the boat. Wow, what a sight! Lee was in the head and missed it. They are fast, seeing one, then gone, another coming up on the other side of the boat.

Windsurfing Jellyfish

The boat stopped its engines and started to drift, the ocean calm and the weather warm. Five or six whales played nearby. Ginger, our guide, said that it was cool seeing them this way; they had no agenda and weren't in a hurry to get anywhere so they just splashed around giving us a great show. Oh yes, there were blue jellyfish the size of the top of a coke can that looked like wind surfers. The birds I can't name, but there were all sorts of them.

As we headed back to San Francisco, we saw a few more whales in the distance and birds resting on the water. As we reached the Golden Gate Bridge, still shrouded in fog, windsurfers met us and glided across the water as we sailed into the bay. The San Francisco skyline glimmered as the sun came out of it's foggy haze.

Sunlight pours through a thin layer of fog over
San Francisco
Farallon Island Lighthouse
This was another memorable birthday for me and Lee got his own picture of the Farallon Island Lighthouse. Thank you Lee for such wonderful memories.

For the record, Pat's nausea kept him from taking a single photo with any of the six rolls of film he brought for the trip. Three weeks later, the Oakland Tribune published an article by staff writer Douglas Fischer that roughs out some of the history of the Farallones in its Monday, August 18, 2003 edition. The article, copied in its entirety below, is ©2003 by the Oakland Tribune and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Article Last Updated: Monday, August 18, 2003 - 6:29:05 AM PST

Farallones ecology shrouded for eons

By Douglas Fischer, STAFF WRITER, Oakland Tribune

FOUR HUNDRED YEARS AGO on a blustery January day, Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino encountered nine pieces of Sierra granite jutting from the Pacific Ocean 26 miles off San Francisco's coast. Christening them "Los Farallones de Los Frayles" -- the Promontories of the Friars -- he sailed on. And for 200 years those little marks on Vizcaino's chart kept the rest of the world from discovering one of the safest harbors on the Pacific Coast: the San Francisco Bay. Today, the Farallones are the mystery -- mystic sentinels on the horizon, visible only on clear days from San Francisco's Ocean Beach, Mount Tamalpais or even Mount Diablo. Few today brave the stomach-churning open-water trek to the islands; far fewer can set foot on the rocky shores. "On those clear days when you see them, it's like a magnet," said Mick Menigoz, the Superfish's owner, who has been running charters out to the Farallones for 20 years. "There's a lot of mystery." To mark the anniversary of Vizcaino's voyage, a group of conservationists, historians, biologists and others recreated a portion of his trip aboard the Superfish on Friday. The idea, said Neil Malloch, a historian with the California Heritage Council who helped organize it, is to bring to life a bit of the history of the Bay Area's remotest outpost.

And it's a rich one. The rocks served as a penal colony for Russian fur traders and later as larder and egg supply for a bustling Gold Rush-era San Francisco -- not from imported chickens, but from native common murres, a dead-ringer for a flying penguin that lays an egg twice the size of a hen's typical Grade A Jumbo, said historian Peter White.

Egg hunters of the era would gather all they could carry, then stomp on what was left to assure a fresh batch for the next lucrative visit a few days later. Scientists figure 450,000 murres nested on the Farallones treeless, guano-covered shores before 1850.

By 1900 there were less than 100, said Joelle Buffa, manager of the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.

Today, the view of the Farallones have flipped. Considered one of the wildest, most productive seabird refuges in the continental United States, the islands are off-limits to all but a handful of biologists studying the wildlife.

It's a stunningly wealthy ecosystem. Blackfooted albatross leave young behind in nests on Midway Island, clear across the Pacific Ocean, to forage in the Farallones -- a symbol of how productive the area is, said Mary Jane Schramm, a refuge spokeswoman. Friday's tour encountered no fewer than six humpbacks lolling in the waters around the islands, feeding on krill.

Yet other than the occasional fishing charter or whale-watching expedition, the waters here are the domain of seals, murres, great white sharks and whales. For the 7 million people shoe-horned into the Bay Area, the islands are ethereal ghosts emerging only occasionally from the fog.

"You go to a place like this, and it's like going to church. You come out spiritually renewed," said Peter Douglas, executive director of the California Coastal Commission. "It's a wilderness -- you may not get there, but just knowing it's there is powerful. And it's meaningful."

The Farallones formed 10 million years ago in what is now Bakersfield, made of the same rock as Yosemite's Half Dome.

But "even a bunch of granite knows to get out of Bakersfield," joked Ed Ueber, long-time manager of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and so the Farallones rode the Pacific plate north.

Today they are 26 miles due west of San Francisco, 20 miles south of Point Reyes -- a miniature archipelago of guano-stained rocks poking between twin plains of fog and sea. Native Americans, revering them as the "Islands of the Dead," never set foot on them, historians say.

They exist in three groups: the seven steep, remote, uninhabitable northern islands; the tiny, equally desolate middle island, aptly dubbed the "Pimple;" and the main Southeast Island. As long as the Golden Gate Bridge's span and as tall as Nob Hill, British explorer and privateer Sir Francis Drake undoubtedly stopped at the islands on his trip through the region in 1579, Malloch said. But Queen Elizabeth I impounded Drake's logs and charts upon his return, and not until Vizcaino's 1603 reconnaissance did the Farallones appear on maps.

Spanish galleons would cross the Pacific laden with Aztec gold, trade in the Philippines for Chinese silk and spices, then ride the winds east to land somewhere north of San Francisco, according to Malloch. A sail south along the coast to Acapulco completed the circle.

The shore offered nothing but treachery -- or so the Spaniards thought. "Rocks out there kill ships," Menigoz said. "There's one mystery rock, Noonday rock, that doesn't even break the water. It's 12 feet below the surface.... Why in the world would you come closer to the coast if you didn't have to?"

For nearly 200 years no reason existed. Not until the 1770s, after an overland expedition crested a ridge and spied the Bay, did the Golden Gate yield its secret.
So, too, did the Farallones.

In 1810, five New England sealing boats arrived, setting sail two years later for China with 150,000 fur seal pelts that sold for $2.50 apiece, said White, author of The Farallon Islands: Sentinels of the Golden Gate (Scott Wall, 1995).

Russian traders soon followed. By 1838 the fur trade was dead and the egg hunters just starting. By the 1880s the egg hunters were gone, White said.
In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt protected what was left, declaring the islands a national wildlife refuge, but that didn't stop the abuse.

From 1946 to 1970 the U.S. Navy dumped 47,800 barrels of low-grade radioactive waste off the Continental shelf. Most landed outside marine sanctuary limits, but currents have changed that.

A few years ago marine scientist Kevin Rhodes was trawling the boundary waters for a fish survey and pulled up one. One pass with a Geiger counter -- that a fishing boat would even have such an instrument speaks to the frequency of such events -- confirmed their fears, and the barrel went back overboard.

Roosevelt's declaration didn't remove the human footprint either. By the early 1900s the 120-acre main island housed up to 70 people -- four lighthouse keepers and their families, Coast Guardsmen, Navy officers, their wives, children, a school and post office.

It was a mean life, White figures. He's counted 30-odd deaths on the island, all violent -- gunshots, diphtheria, fire. The stench from the birds is ever-present, there's no lee from unceasing, shifting winds and no soil for even a modest garden.

"It smells terrible, the flies are terrible, you have to wear a hat and you always wear a light jacket" said Ueber -- not for the cold, he added, which can be biting, but for the bird droppings.

Today, the islands are recovering.

Refuge managers say they aim to restore the "natural processes" as much as possible. Human visitors on the islands are limited to biologists and volunteers -- no more than seven or eight people in the summer, as few as two in the winter. There is no dock.

"It's a different place. It's a wild place," Ueber said. "There's a real effort to try and understand how the system works but not tread on it."

Bird populations are rebounding -- biologists counted 100,000 murres last year for the first time. Elephant seals re-established a breeding population in the 1970s. Five years ago fur seals returned, Boffa said.

Today, the only structures are two light-keeper houses, built in 1878 and 1880, their cisterns and a catchment basin to capture rainwater, and a new generator shack, solar powered lighthouse and gantry for watercraft.

And that's the way they'll likely stay -- at least for the near future -- rocky outposts on the literal edge of the Bay Area's consciousness, 26 miles yet a world apart.

Their best protectors, in some ways, are the notoriously choppy waters of the Gulf of the Farallones. Virtually everyone in the Bay Area, it seems, knows someone who ventured into those waters only to spend the miserable trip clutching the gunwales and trying to avoid being seasick.

"It's not for the faint of heart," says Michael Carver of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary who has visited the islands more than a 100 times.

Oakland Tribune editor's note: Contact Douglas Fischer at . Wanting to share the beauty, he chartered a boat a few years ago to give his friends a tour. "Every single one was blowing chunks off the side," he said.