OUTDOORS: Farallones not just for the birds

January 29, 2013 

The Pacific Coast has surprisingly few islands. The largest group is the Channel Islands, located off the coast of Southern California. Far smaller, the only other major group is the Farallones, 27 miles outside the entrance to San Francisco Bay.

Seven small islands and many rocks make up a total of 211 acres. Far from predators, the islands are the largest seabird nesting colony in the contiguous United States and an important breeding spot for six species of seals and sea lions. This wasn't always the case, however. American and Russian hunters decimated the fur seal population in the early 1800s.

They were followed by egg harvesters who systematically gathered bird eggs to supply food for the 49ers and thousands of other immigrants who later flooded into the Golden State.

A major change came in 1909 when President Teddy Roosevelt made the islands a wildlife refuge. Native wildlife has gradually recovered and the islands are now one of the best places in California to see birds and marine mammals.

A lighthouse was built on Southeast Farallon in 1855. Lighthouse keepers and their families lived on the isolated, windswept island until the top of the tower was removed and an automated beacon was installed in 1972. Today, the only residents of the island are wildlife researchers who live and work in the former homes of the lighthouse keepers.

Although the islands are closed to the public, it is possible to enjoy wildlife viewing and beautiful island scenery on regularly-scheduled boat tours from San Francisco. I got the chance to make the trip last weekend.

Leaving Fort Mason at 8 a.m. on a 65-foot catamaran, we arrived at the islands barely two hours later. Despite a strong swell, the journey was surprisingly smooth. Part of the fun of visiting the islands is getting there and back. Along the way we were treated to panoramic views of San Francisco Bay, including all of the major islands, the city skylines, sailboats, Fort Point, and a "boat's-eye" view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Once under the bridge, our new panorama included the Marin Headlands, Mt. Tamalpais, Point Bonita Lighthouse, China Beach, Golden Gate Park, Twin Peaks, San Bruno Mountain, and many other Bay Area landmarks. To the north we could easily identify the southernmost bluffs of Point Reyes. We passed a couple of large container ships at a range close enough for inspection.

The Farallon Islands rise gradually on the western horizon. There's a point during the journey when they might be small rocks not too far away or immense islands at the edge of the horizon. Even at close range they have the stark beauty of inhospitable, windswept navigational hazards. Their appearance belies their suitability for a wide range of bird species.

Several grey whales broke the surface near the boat. January through April is the best time to spot them as they migrate south to Baja. Blue whales are also commonly seen around the islands, though we didn't happen to glimpse any on our trip. Depending on the season, you may also see humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, fur seals, elephant seals, dolphins, porpoises, or sharks. The naturalist on board the ship provided an interesting commentary on the species we saw.

We made our trip with SF Bay Whale Watching. Their boat was fast, well-maintained, and spacious -- even though this was a sold-out tour. Expeditions to the islands last up to 8 hours, depending on weather. For more information, go to https://www.sfbaywhalewatching.com/ or call (415) 331-6267.

Despite daytime highs in the 60s, speeding through the water at 15 knots felt much colder -- not a problem, however, with layered clothes and a warm hat. It doesn't hurt to have a scarf and warm boots, either. The sun's reflection on the water makes sunglasses and sunscreen essential. I've never had a problem with seasickness, but I've always taken Dramamine. I don't plan on pushing my luck, and I don't recommend that you do, either.

Adam Blauert is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, backpacking and exploring the western states. He can be reached at adamblauert@yahoo.com

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