The scientists on the Farallones live in the old lighthouse keepers’ houses, built in the late 1800’s.The Farallon Islands off the coast of California are a vital home to many birds and marine mammals. In fact, the islands boast the largest sea bird breeding colony in the contiguous United States and have one of the largest fur seal populations south of Alaska. They are hard to get to and once you are there, you may wonder why on earth you ever decided to come to these windswept, desert islands. “After you’ve been on the island for a while,” says PRBO Program Manager Russ Bradley, “it starts to sound like the gulls are saying your name.”
The chill of the fog and wind cut through you, the kelp flies swarm, the overpoweringly acrid smell of years-worth of bird guano wafts through the air and loud, incessant cackle of hundreds, even thousands of sea gulls, could drive even the hardiest of souls away from this desolate outcropping of granite in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The animals wouldn’t want it any other way. And neither would the researchers and biologists stationed at the Farallones.
While only 27 miles off the coast of San Francisco, for the human inhabitants, life can also seem isolated and lonely. They have a very small neighborhood. Only two houses still stand on Southeast Farallon. Today the old lighthouse keepers’ houses, originally built in the late 1800’s, house the small team of researchers from PRBO Conservation Science. A bit of Victorian civilization in an otherwise completely wild world.
It is a rare privilege to be able to set foot on the Farallon Islands. As rugged as this place may seem, it is a fragile and extremely sensitive environment. As a National Wildlife Refuge, the area is strictly off limits to the public. Each year only a few dozen people are allowed to be hoisted onto South Farallon Island, and most, if not all, are there specifically to conduct scientific research. The humans there now tread lightly. QUEST was invited out to the islands to get an inside look at this living laboratory and meet some of the people doing important scientific research on such wide ranging topics as global climate change to highly specific studies on sea bird breeding rates.
Each day on the Farallones might bring new surprises. To get an idea what they witnessed on the islands this week, researchers sent back a number of reports.
“October 12th was a fantastic day for whales around the islands – biologists noted the 3 resident Gray Whales, an incredible 15 endangered Blue Whales and 93 Humpback Whales! Even more amazing were the 265 Risso’s Dolphins, 20 Pacific White-sided Dolphins, 12 Northern Right Whale Dolphins, and 5 Dall’s Porpoises –All these marine mammals are attracted to the Gulf of the Farallones to feed on its bountiful food sources, particularly this year’s abundant supply of krill.”
“October 5th – PRBO conducted a weekly island survey of the six species of pinniped on the Farallones. This entailed counting all the seals and sea lions from the lighthouse and walking around to the coves to find elephant seals and other species. This survey yielded 1,939 California Sea Lions, 40 Steller’s Sea Lions, 30 Harbor Seals, 81 Northern Fur Seals, and 116 Northern Elephant Seals. On 1-Oct, we conducted our first survey of at Indian Head Beach and counted 115 fur seal pups and over 160 adults and immature – this is a true success story for conservation on the Farallones!”
“October 3rd – Landbird migration day! Dropping from the sky, an Evening Grosbeak flew down into the Lavaterra bushes. Although this species is not super-rare on the coast, here on the Farallones, this was the first Evening Grosbeak seen on the island since 1979! While observing the grosbeak, the biologists began spotting other birds such as a female Canada Warbler and an Ovenbird from the previous few days.”
To learn more about what it is like to live and work on the Farallones, check out our QUEST Science on the SPOT story, “Life on the Farallones.” I also encourage you to explore the islands further via QUEST, where we have stories on the seals, birds and sharks – on, above and around the islands, as well as educational materials, an audio slide show, an interactive multimedia map, and historic timeline. Also, you can get more info from KQED’s Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Adventures website.
Visit the Science on the SPOT: Life on the Farallones page or watch the video below:
In addition, this week a new film about the Farallon Islands opens at California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. SANCTUARY IN THE SEA: A GULF OF THE FARALLONES EXPERIENCE debuts Saturday, October 16. Discover the beauty, diversity and history of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, through the eyes of Ron Elliot, a former urchin diver turned wildlife videographer who has spent years in the underwater gardens beneath the waves around the Farallones.