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Spyhoppers and Egg Wars: California’s Farallon Islands

January 25, 2011


Often just visible from the beaches and cliffs of the Bay Area as they rise above a thick marine fog, the Farallon Islands lie roughly 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, and are therefore at least as distant from the consciousness of most of the region’s 7 million residents. Since moving to the city of San Francisco about a year and a half ago, I had often squinted into that distance, imagining a remote paradise obscured by the gray, and scheming about how I might get there.

The incredible biological diversity now found on the Farallons belies a history of exploitation; 19th century fur traders all but extirpated populations of the northern fur seal, and as San Francisco’s urban population grew, egg collectors decimated colonies of seabirds that nest on the islands’ steep, rocky outcroppings. Given that the Farallon Islands are home to the United States’ largest seabird breeding colonies south of Alaska, the economic potential for egg collectors in the 1860s was so compelling to certain Bay Area entrepreneurs that an epic rivalry between the Pacific Egg Company and some rogue collectors developed. The most vicious episode in the Farallon Egg Wars (as they are now known) resulted in the death of at least two men!

Since the Farallons were designated a National Wildlife Refuge in 1909, I wasn’t so concerned with renegade egg poachers packing pistols as with run-of-the-mill seasickness when I boarded a small boat owned by the San Francisco Bay Whale Watching Company last July. The swell and chop around the islands are legendary, but the relatively calm seas that morning were only the beginning of our good luck. After passing under the bridge and out of the bay, we paused momentarily to watch sea lions and harbor seals in repose below the Point Bonita lighthouse, and headed for open water.

As we approached the islands, one creature after another surfaced nearby, appearing with the transient splendor of fireworks. Nobody knew where to look first as blue, gray, and humpback whales spouted, breached, and spyhopped so close that the mist of whale breath was overwhelming, and inspired me to coin a new term—whalitosis. Closer to the rocky, guano-stained shores we began to see common murres, pigeon guillemots, several species of cormorants, and the species I was most excited about all day—tufted puffins!

A pair of these seldom-seen stunners in their summer plumage landed in the water just in
front of the boat and puttered about briefly before taking off toward the smaller offshore islands. A group of five or six Risso’s dolphins, marbled gray and white, rode noiselessly beside us as we moved toward several spouts in the distance, hoping for another whale sighting. We turned off the engine to observe several humpbacks a few hundred yards away, and held our collective breath as they swam closer and closer, under the boat and back again. The marine biologists on board speculated that these two were beginning some kind of mating ritual as they somersaulted and dove in unison, winding their enormous bodies around one another for over an hour as we watched, voyeur-like. As the whales slowly drifted away toward some other pursuit, we reluctantly made our way back under the bridge, glowing international orange through the fog.

Though I would have loved nothing more than to go ashore and see the Farallons from another perspective, I understand why I can’t. This is absolutely a place that belongs to the whales, dolphins, gulls, and guillemots, who claim their wild domain with raucous cries and the pungent smell of centuries of inhabitance, occasionally gracing us with a glimpse of their everyday, though it always seems extraordinary.

Check out the California Academy of Science’s live Farallons webcam: http://www.calacademy.org/webcams/farallones/

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2011 9:11 am

    Nice debut, Zoe! I like it that puffins can outweigh whales on the scale of the unexpected.

  2. Kate White permalink
    January 25, 2011 11:52 am

    Amazing article Zoe! Can’t wait to read more.

  3. LYNN HERMANS permalink
    January 25, 2011 7:03 pm

    Zoe,love your puffin pictures.They have been a favorite of mine since Lucky Mrs Ticklefeather.I thought they were only found farther north

  4. January 27, 2011 11:27 am

    Puffins are incredible! What a find!

    Great post — I’ve always wondered about those islands myself.

  5. January 27, 2011 11:28 am

    Those little guys are so cute! They look straight out of a cartoon from Pixar! Is it wrong that I want one?!?

    Kudos on being FP!

  6. humanitarikim permalink
    January 27, 2011 11:32 am

    I have always wanted to go whale watching, but ‘whalatosis’ doesn’t sound all that enticing. hehe

  7. J Roycroft permalink
    January 27, 2011 11:57 am

    Puffins can swim? That just seems weird to me. Congrats on FP

  8. January 27, 2011 12:07 pm

    nice puffins.. can they swim ..?

  9. January 27, 2011 1:31 pm

    “Whalitosis” –ha!
    I’ve always liked puffins! I’m so glad the area is being preserved. It sounds like such a special place.

  10. January 27, 2011 5:19 pm

    hello people.

  11. January 27, 2011 5:21 pm

    puffins are cute i want to hold one maybe

  12. January 27, 2011 5:46 pm

    Wow, great post!

  13. January 27, 2011 7:05 pm

    wow, these are such beautiful pictures!! congrats on being freshly pressed!! :]

  14. Yoga Sara permalink
    January 27, 2011 7:24 pm

    Hi Zoe, great post looking forward to the next :)

  15. January 27, 2011 8:53 pm

    Beautiful.

  16. January 27, 2011 10:05 pm

    I have always wanted to go whale watching, but ‘whalatosis’ doesn’t sound all that enticing. hehe

  17. todaychronicle permalink
    January 27, 2011 11:29 pm

    Good post, showing an interesting area!

  18. January 27, 2011 11:57 pm

    That must have been a truly wonderful experience :-) Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  19. AshlinDz permalink
    January 28, 2011 1:13 am

    Great article

  20. January 28, 2011 2:40 am

    Nice photo, good article! Congrats on being freshly pressed.. loved the puffins.

  21. January 28, 2011 2:46 am

    Nice pics. Cannon Beach in Oregon is a great place to see Puffins. Observers call them “flying potatoes” because of their unique appearance in flight.

  22. Marla permalink
    January 28, 2011 2:57 am

    Very nicely done! Loved the pictures and the words both…ever whalitosis! Congrats on FP!

  23. January 28, 2011 9:17 am

    unique blog
    Congrats on freshly pressed !

  24. January 28, 2011 12:55 pm

    beautiful beaches and beautiful and country.

  25. gvipromote permalink
    February 1, 2011 10:00 pm

    ตั๋วเครื่องบินราคาถูก

    Those little guys are so cute! They look straight out of a cartoon from Pixar! Is it wrong that I want one?!?

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