100 Years of the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge

View of Noonday Rock

This story by former Wildlife Refuge Specialist Zach Coffman was originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Tideline, the quarterly newsletter of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

February marks the 100th anniversary of the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was created by President Theodore Roosevelt with an executive order that designated North and Middle Farallon Islands and Noonday Rock as the Farallon Reservation, establishing a “preserve and breeding ground for native birds.” In 1969, the Reservation became known as Farallon National Wildlife Refuge and expanded protection to include Southeast Farallon Island (SEFI).

As the only inhabitable island among a cluster of rocky outcrops, SEFI once supported a Coast Guard Station. Most of the former dwellings and outbuildings that were constructed over the last hundred years have been removed and only the bare essentials of a field camp remain for refuge use. Management of the islands is now focused on preservation and restoration, whilst also serving as an invaluable resource for data collection and research. It is a place where nature is paramount, unrestricted and raw. It is sometimes hard to comprehend that the islands are only 27 miles west of San Francisco and still within the city limits.
“Farallon” is the Spanish word for “a rocky promontory rising from the ocean.” Today, the Farallones are commonly referred to as the Galapagos of California. They are abundant with life! The islands support the largest seabird breeding colony south of Alaska. They are home to 350,000 seabirds and roughly 30,000 marine mammals.

Brandt's CormorantTwenty-nine percent of California’s breeding seabirds breed on the Farallones. They include the world’s largest breeding colonies of ashy storm-petrel, Brandt’s cormorant, and Western gulls. Other seabird species that nest on the refuge are tufted puffin, common murre, pigeon guillemot, double-crested and pelagic cormorants, Cassin’s and rhinoceros auklets, Leach’s storm petrel, and black oystercatcher.

The proximity of the Farallones to the mainland provided humans with easy access and its ecological bounty was reaped. The islands, though rugged and seemingly indestructible, suffered greatly at the hands of man. It is well-documented not just in the history books but also in the soil, the plants and animals that live on the Farallones.

It is speculated that the first visitors to the islands were the sea-faring Native Americans of more northerly groups. The local Costanoan and Coast Miwok Indians, sometimes referred collectively as the Ohlone, had great reverence for the Farallones. They called them the “Islands of the Dead” and believed the spirit of the deceased traveled there. Although it is generally accepted that these local Native Americans did not go to the islands, it is unclear whether this is due to the islands’ spiritual significance or due to the lack of adequate sea worthy boats.

Sir Francis Drake is recognized as the first European to visit and named them the “Islands of Saint James.” On August 3, 1579, work parties were sent ashore to the south island, where they replenished the ships’ stores with seal and sea lion meat. The Spanish captain Sebastian Rodriquez Cermeno, on a return voyage from the Philippines, was given the directive to survey and map the coast of California. After crashing off of the coast of Punta de los Reyes (Point Reyes), his crew continued towards Acapulco in nothing more then a small open launch. As they headed south, they mapped the Farallon Islands for the first time. They noted that there were “seven Farallones close together.” Though the Spanish captains knew of the Farallones it was believed that they never set foot there. The following 200 years left the islands relatively untouched. It was not until the proliferation of fur traders that degradation of the islands began.

Fur seals are medium-sized marine mammals, with males growing up to 600 pounds and females topping out at 110 pounds. Fur seals became highly coveted for their warm, dense fur, which has 300,000 hairs per square inch. A captain and a small group of Boston-based whalers established a post on SEFI and subsequently slaughtered 150,000 fur seals between 1810 and 1813, extirpating the vast majority of the population.

Russian hunters then occupied SEFI for the next 25 years and wiped out the remaining fur seals. Members of the Russian contingent lived in rock huts with skin roofs near the present day East Landing. It is believed that during this time the population of people living on the island varied greatly, anywhere from 100 to just seven. Life was hard on the island. Supplies were infrequent and often meager. As a result the Russians harvested common murre eggs and killed thousands of them for their feathers and meat. In 1840 the Russian government decided to leave California and the Russian occupation on the Farallones ceased.

The Islands did not remain quiet for long. In 1848, with the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevadas, San Francisco became a booming port overnight. The coastal waters filled quickly with boats full of gold seekers, and as a result Congress authorized the construction of 16 lighthouses along the coast, including one on the Farallones. The construction of the lighthouse on SEFI became a monumental feat, as it would stand atop the 348-foot peak. Most of the materials were quarried on the island and a brick facing was used to cover the rocks. By August 1853 the lighthouse and the keepers’ quarters were completed. The finishing touch to the lighthouse was a special Fresnel lens arriving from France. Unfortunately, the lighthouse that had been specifically designed to fit around the lens was too small and the entire structure had to be torn down and rebuilt. By the end of the following year a new structure was built in its place and the lighthouse was operational.

While construction was occuring on the SEFI, life on the mainland was booming. The gold rush was bringing tens of thousands of new people to San Francisco and as a result food shortages occurred. People turned to common murre eggs to supplement their diets. This egg collection took place until 1881 and decimated the murre population. It was estimated that 400,000 common murres once bred on the Farallon Islands. By the time this practice ended, just a fraction of the population remained.

Activity on SEFI was relatively quiet after 1881 - just the lighthouse keepers and a few support staff remained. This continued until 1902 when the United States Weather Bureau laid a cable from the islands to Point Reyes. The cable was plagued with problems. It was abandoned the following year when the Weather Service unveiled a new long range radio that would transmit back to the mainland. This too was short lived as the U.S. Navy soon took over control of the Weather Service equipment and the radio.

Coast Guard HousesBy 1905 the Navy had built its own station, which became a highly important and strategic center for long range transmissions. The importance of the weather and radio stations increased, as did the level of involvement that the Navy had on the islands. In addition to the Navy, the newly-created Lighthouse Service, which had full responsibility of maintaining and manning the lighthouse, also had staff on the SEFI. During this time many buildings were constructed and the island population grew significantly. The Lighthouse Service remained on the island until it was disbanded in 1939.

The U.S. Coast Guard took over maintaining the lighthouse facilities. The Coast Guard and the Navy brought the island population to a high of 78 during World War II in 1942. When the war ended and the Navy departed, many of the old, unused buildings were torn down. The Coast Guard remained on SEFI until 1965 when the families moved away from the island and crew size was reduced to just six.

A monumental change occurred on the islands and on the mainland in 1967. Environmental awareness was increasing and ecological significance of the islands became apparent. With awareness came the need for environmental stewardship. Biologists from Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now known as PRBO Conservation Science) became permanent residents on SEFI to research and monitor the wildlife.

When the Farallon Reservation became known as the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge in 1969, U.S. Fish and Wildlife (Service) joined the Coast Guard in managing the islands. In addition, a formal agreement was established between PRBO and the refuge for PRBO to continue its research.

The Service and PRBO developed several priorities to restore the Farallones. One of the first priorities was to reduce disturbance and foster the islands to return to a more natural state. By 1969 wildlife population numbers were dismal. Common murres, for example, were down to 6000 birds. Years of unrestricted egg collecting, senseless shooting of animals and countless oil spills had devasted the wildlife.  Another priority was to educate the local fisherman and Coast Guard personnel still living on the island on how their actions can affect wildlife and its habitat. Education, reduction of human disturbance, and increased enforcement helped some wildlife populations rebound slowly.

Today the Farallones once again abound with life. Fur seals that had been extirpated are returning to the islands. Male fur seals began to arrive 30 years ago and in 1996, the first pups were born on the islands. Since then the population increased and in 2008, scientists surveyed 190 seals, including 97 pups.

Common MurresThe common murres, whose breeding colonies had been decimated, have returned with approximate numbers of 150,000 on the refuge. Western gulls, another species that had for many years been the brunt of needless attacks and senseless killing are back at historic numbers. Other species, such as auklets and sea lions, have also recovered. California sea lion populations have increased so dramatically in the last year that portions of the island were closed to all biologists and refuge personnel to foster this amazing growth.

For those researchers living on the island, life on the Farallones is a balancing act; how does one study a species in sensitive habitat without creating more harm to the habitat or the animal? The handful of researchers and managers who cycle through the island during the year are constantly reminded that they are simply visitors who must walk with utmost care to promote the recovery of this truly amazing place.