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FARALLON ISLANDS: A natural history and chronology

26 miles from Golden Gate, 211 acres total.

Until European explorers came to California, the Farralones were the protected preserve of sea mammals, birds and flying invertebrates. Sir Francis Drake's expedition may have been the first men to deliberately set foot on the Farallones. When his boat landed here in 1579 the crewmen hunted sealions for meat and collected seabird eggs. It was a pattern of exploitation that would last for 400 years.

The Native Americans feared the islands and stayed away. It's not clear their small craft could have made the 26 miles trip. So before Drake and later explorers and exploiters the 211 acres of the scattered rocky islands were densely populated with seabirds and oceanic mammals. The birds nesting on the Farallon Islands in 1917 had been harshly reduced in numbers. Some mammals native to the Farallon area of the Pacific had disappeared completely.

Fifteen years ago I spent an hour on the southeast Farallon in spring. I was there courtesy of a Point Reyes Bird Observatory supply boat. California sealions and harbor seals were abundant in the water of a small cove, a few lined up on on the narrow, rocky beach. High up in the cliff faces I could see the small nesting caves, Tufted Puffin came and went.

Each returning bird carried a small line of fish dangling from that spectacular snoze. They would hit the lip of the rock. Each returning bird carried a line of fish in its beak, and would land at what seemed like full flight speed, then bounce inside. The steepest slopes of the island were black and white with upright Commun Murre, their high-pitched whistles mixing with the sound of wind and waves. Some seastacks held Peglagic and Brandt's Cormorant nests. Somewhere in the cracks of the rocks Pigeon Guillemot had hidden nests. On the island itself the ground was divided and sub-divided by screaming and territorial Western Gulls nesting among the rocks and stubby plants. Occasionally you could spot the burrow openings used at night by the Cassin's Auklets. There were the two wooden houses, wooden boardwalks, an antenna, a lighthouse, signs of the two centuries of human domination. But the bird sounds and density were a fraction of what was here through long centuries for the animals of the Pacific Ocean.

The occsional visits by sailing ships who stopped for seal or sealion meat, or to gather eggs, were replaced around 1810 by groups of hunters lived seasonally on the islands. Hunters ate any animal available to kill, but their main target was the northern fur seal whose pelt was extremely valuable for trade in China. In 1810 thirty thousand fur seals' hides were collected during a five month season. Two years later the number reached 50,000. In 1817 a permanent Russian hunting colony was established on the southeast Farallon Is. The highest seal kill was probably 1834: 200,000. At the same time sea bird eggs and meat were collected and shipped north to the Russian post at Fort Ross. IN 1828 50,000 Farallones seabirds were killed for food.

The Russians left in 1841, just before the most profitable exploitation of the islands' wildlife.

After the Gold Rush there was a market for fresh eggs. California had no poultry industry and commercial egging struck the Farallon Islands. In 1854 over half a million seabird eggs were gathered for sale to San Francisco restaurants. Only the Western Gull eggs were avoided as their thin shells would not survive the ocean passage. Some eggers also avoided the Tufted Puffins because of their ferocious bite. Common Murre, all cormorant species and other open nesting birds were easy targets.

Compounding the environmental damage: the first lighthouse was begun in 1852. That brought permanent residents with pets, goats and worst of all, Australian hares that were freed on the island. Habitat and wildlife populations disintegrated further. The fur seal and elephant seal were extirpated. Even sealions & harbor seals were at a low number by the end of the 19th Century. Seabird populations were destroyed or left in tiny colonies. Even the nesting Ravens on Southeast Farallon were shot.

1896 was the last year of commerical egging on the islands, only 100,000 could be found. Yet residents continued to gather seabird eggs until 1905. The earliest conservation moves had been led by the California Academy of Sciences. But the arrival of the Audubon Society coincided with one of the worst threats ever to face Farallon seabirds. By 1917 the spread of cars had led to increased transport of petroleum and that was producing an endless oil slick around the islands. Tankers emptied their ballast tanks before entering San Francisco Bay. That waste oil was covering the Farallon shores and killing the remaining seabirds and mammals. Concerned lighthouse officials contacted the newly fledged Audubon Society which went to work.

The co-founder of thr Bay Area's first Audubon Chapter was wealthy coffee importer, Carlos B. Lastreto, a San Francisco native. He and some fellow students in a U.C. extension nature study class founded the Audubon Association of the Pacific, eventually Golden Gate Audubon. Lastreto was the first chapter president. In 1919 he and Dr. Barton Evermann, a prominent ichthyologist, formed a committee to stop the oil dumping. At this time Evermann was Director of the California Academy of Sciences.

To do this they met with various oil company officials and got voluntary agreements to have waste oil pumped into tanks on shore and recycled. That was a crucial early step in protecting the precious Farallones and the wildlife there. Goverment agencies offered little help because the territorial limit was only three miles and apparently no attempt was made to enforce rules within three miles of the islands.

According to the "Gull" of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, an August, 1930, field trip to the Farallones held a shocking disappointment for the Audubon members who went: only four Common Murre could be found. Western Gulls and Brandt's Cormorant were abundant and the only land birds were Rock Wren and House Sparrow.

By 1959 the Commun Murre population had dwindled to 6,000 breeding birds, partially due to over-fishing and use of bird-drowning nets. Yet until recent effects of climate change there have been positive milestones: Rhinoceros Auklets resumed breeding in 1972, elephant seals in 1973, the last feral rabbit was killed in 1975, the first baby northern fur seal was born there in 1996 and ten years later there were 80 pups.

Yet the islands are not isolated from global changes. The need for care continues. The last two summers have seen little of the usual nutrient-rich ocean upwelling. In 2005 and 2006 no Cassin's Auklet chicks fledged on the Farallones. This could be disastrous for a seabird whose lifespan may not exceed six years.



Native Americans did not go to the Farallones.


Sir Francis Drake's ships land on Farallon Islands, perhaps first humans there to take eggs and sea lion meat


Explorer Sebastian Vizcainols map first to show location of the Farallon Islands


Explorer Juan Francisco de Bodega names islands Los Farallones de los Friales


First known egg collecting, fur seal and sea otter slaughter by a Yankee ship on Farallon Islands


Fur-hunters on Farallones collect 30,000 fur seal pelts in five months


Fur-hunters on Farallones collect 53,000 fur seal pelts in five months


Russians establish permanent fur-hunting post on the islands


50,000 seabird carcasses shipped from Farallones to Fort Ross for eating


Over 200,000 fur seals killed on Farallon Islands.


Russians leave Farallon Islands, the fur seal extirpated, other mammal and bird populations greatly reduced.


California Gold Rush, leads to insatiable appetite for eggs, many from the Farallones.


Construction begins on first Farallones lighthouse. Soon feral rabbits were released and cats ran wild.


Over half million seabird eggs gathered in two months, sold to mainland stores and restaurants.


Commercial egging banned on Farallones. This final year less than 100,000 eggs collected.


Egging by Farallones lighthouse crew stopped.


North and Middle Farallon Islands made national wildlife reservation by Theodore Roosevelt.


Beginning of 24 years of dumping of radioactive waste in ocean southwest of the Farallon Islands.


The once abundant Common Murre population reaches a breeding season low of less than 6000 birds.


Southeast Farallones protected as part of expanded Farallones National Wildlife Refuge.


Point Reyes Bird Observatory becomes caretaker of Farallones under contract to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Rhinoceros Auklets resume breeding on Farallones.


First elephant seal pup born on Farallones in more than a century.


Last feral rabbit on Farallones killed.


Farallones Marine Sanctuary created, protecting sealife around the islands


United Nations recognizes Farallones as part of Golden Gate Biosphere Reserve


First baby northern fur seal born on Farallones in over a century.


Eighty baby fur seals born on the Farallones.


TOWHEE.NET:  Harry Fuller, 820 NW 19th Street, McMinnville, OR 97128