Spyhoppers and Egg Wars: California’s Farallon Islands
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/