A Rare Glimpse Into Life on the Farallon Islands

Scientists give a rare tour of the off-limits islands.

the devil's teeth1
Joe Rosato Jr.

Sailors used to call it the Devil’s Teeth.  Not just because the cluster of jutting islands known as the Farallones resembled a gnarled set of choppers – but because they were known to chew up ships that ventured too close.

Despite an appetite for ships, the island’s reputation didn’t deter early visitors hell bent on making a buck. 
"This island has a long human history," said Russ Bradley of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. "Some of it has not been very pretty."

Biologists have spent decades trying to undo the damage done by the island’s initial visitors. Even today, they grapple with issues created more than a century ago. 

By the mid-1800s, eggers had snatched thousands of Muir eggs to feed San Francisco’s growing Gold Dust population. Fur traders killed off thousands of fur seals that once covered the island. 

"They were hunted by Russian fur sealers, then American fur sealers," said Bradley, standing on a barren plain on the island. "And they took every last one."

It wasn’t until the nineties, that a pair of fur seals returned to the island.

Twenty-seven miles outside the Golden Gate, the Farallon Islands are nothing more to most, than an occasional bump on a clear day. Though the islands are off-limits to the public, they are a biological wonderland to the handful of researchers who live there.     

"It’s a really rich marine area," said biologist Melissa Pitkin. "There’s all kind of food for everything -- from rockfish to marine mammals to sea birds to white sharks."

From a lookout point 365-feet above sea level at the island’s lighthouse, Megan Elrod peered through a spotting scope toward the south shore where dozens of sea lions swam. The area is one of the island’s hotspots for white shark attacks who come to dine on elephant seals. 

"You can tell shark attacks up here," Elrod said scanning the shore. "Obviously if there’s blood but also the gulls will start congregating.'

Every shark attack or sighting is logged by researchers on the island. The Farallone’s waters are famous for their shark visitors in the Fall, drawing researchers and tour boats offering underwater cage viewing.

"We’ve seen attacks right out here," said Bradley, gesturing toward the water. "Just a few feet from shore."

In a Victorian house built for lighthouse keepers in the 1870s,  a bookcase filled with journals dates back to 1967 when researchers began keeping daily logs of all animal and bird sightings.  But one species that doesn’t make the book, is mice .

Every step across the island seems to send a mouse scurrying from the holes that dot the landscape. The non-native mice are leftovers from the earliest settlers and island managers say they’re causing havoc.

The mice eat the island’s rare salamanders and spread non-native seeds across the island. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials also believe they’re responsible for extending the stay of burrowing owls which are drawn to the island to eat mice. The problem, officials said, is that when the mice die off in the winter, the owls begin eating sea birds like the rare Stormy Petrel.

The federal government is floating a plan to eradicate the mice using poison. The plan has some conservation groups worried about collateral damage to sea birds. The agency is currently drafting an environmental impact report that will eventually go before the public.              

"There are thousands of islands where non-native species have been taken out successfully," said Dan Grout of Island Conversation, which is advising government officials. "Hundreds of species where invasive rodents in particular have been eradicated."

On a recent day, the Feds hauled a boatload of journalists to the island to get a glimpse of the mouse problem, and an insight into daily life. A crane lifted a small skiff carrying visitors onto the island. Back in the 1800s, early settlers used the same technology to haul enough supplies and materials onto the island to build homes and a lighthouse. An overworked mule was said to do the heavy lifting.

In coves on the island, sea lions and elephant seals sunned themselves, and bravely swam in shark infested waters. A gray whale spouted in the distance.  Researchers walked wooden pathways intently scribbling observations into notebooks. Cormorants balanced on a rock, oblivious to the group of visitors making its way across the island. Off in the distance, through the light haze, you could almost make out civilization.

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