Life on the Farallones: Science on the SPOT

The Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco are a vital home to many birds and marine mammals. While the forbidding and inhospitable nature of the Farallones may be ideal for wildlife, it also makes this a difficult place for scientists to live and work. QUEST ventures out to these jagged rocks to get a glimpse of daily life on the islands and what it’s like there for the researchers from PRBO Conservation Science.


The Farallon Islands, “California’s Galapagos” – KQED QUEST

Lying 28 miles off the coast of San Francisco, the Farallon Islands sit amid one of the most productive marine food webs on the planet and hosts the largest seabird breeding colony in the continental United States. QUEST ventures out for a rare visit to learn what life is like on the islands and meet the scientists who call this incredibly wild place home.

The Remarkable Farallones

Did you ever wonder what research was like on the Farallones almost 40 years ago? In 1978, an episode of Mutual of Ohama’s Wild Kingdom, narrated by the legendary Marlon Perkins, showcased the scientific studies on the island.

The California gull and Cassin’s auklet studies are very similar today. It’s always good to know that our protocols and methods are tried, tested and true.

Humpback and blue whales feeding in record numbers off SF coast


Record numbers of humpack and blue whales are feeding off the coast of San Francisco in a display of gluttony virtually unprecedented for this time of year, marine scientists fresh off a weeklong study near the Farallon Islands confirmed this May .

The researchers on the 208-foot-long Bell Shimada, which is now docked at Piers 30 and 32 along the Embarcadero, counted between 30 and 60 humpbacks a day and about 10 blue whales over the past seven days. Those numbers are far higher than normal for this time of year, based on similar studies done over 13 years.

“We don’t know if it’s food-driven or water-temperature- or climate-change-driven,” Jan Roletto, research coordinator for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, said of this month’s massive numbers of hungry humpbacks.

Last year was also a big year for humpbacks. “They’ve been showing up earlier and earlier” every year, she said.

The researchers suspect the giant cetaceans are following prey — including the tiny shrimp-like creatures known as krill, anchovies and schools of small fish. Several humpbacks were seen over the past few weeks feeding in San Francisco Bay near Fort Point, a highly unusual activity for the whales, which generally prefer to be well offshore.

The weeklong expedition, which covered some 50 miles of ocean from Half Moon Bay to Bodega Bay, was an attempt by scientists with the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and Point Blue Conservation Science to document wildlife populations and trends in the area, which is known to be one of the world’s most abundant marine ecosystems.

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article: Peter Fimrite
photo: Lauri Duke

You can see boobies on the Farallones

Brown booby; Jim Tietz

The Farallones are often visited by wayward migrating birds flying north and south along the Pacific Flyway. Blown off course by weather or just plain lost, birds from the east coast of North America and even some Asian species have dropped by. While most just stop for a few days to rest and fuel up before getting back on track, some birds have decided to stay on the islands permanently.

Brown boobies usually live on the coasts of the tropical Atlantic and Pacific oceans, only reaching as far north as the Gulf of California. Starting around the year 2000, a few individuals have been seen sporadically visiting the Farallones, usually in the fall. Since 2014, there has been a large spike in the number of brown boobies sighted on the islands, with almost 40 individuals seen last year. Usually only overwintering, there are still a couple hanging around Southeast Farallon in the middle of May.

BFBO_Saddle Rock
Blue-footed booby; Cameron

Another tropical bird and close relative of the brown boobies, a blue-footed booby has also made the Farallones home. In the summer of 2013, an irruption of blue-footed boobies flooded the southwestern United States. While most left to return to warmer waters, one individual has remained to call the Farallones home.

The name booby comes from the Spanish word bobo, meaning stupid, fool or clown. This name probably came from their clumsiness on land their lack of fear of humans. Sailors thought them to be stupid birds as they would land on ships where they could be easily captured and eaten.

Northern gannet; Sophie Webb

But the most unusual bird to reside on the Farallones has to be the northern gannet. When it was first seen in April 2012, it was the first confirmed sighting of the species in the Pacific Ocean. Many thought it would eventually leave to return to the northern Atlantic waters it calls home, but 4 years later it is still here.

All three of these species are members of the bird family Suilidae. Possibly wanting to gather around similar looking birds, the brown boobies, blue-footed booby and northern gannet all like to roost on Southeast Farallon’s Sugar Loaf Rock on the north side of the island where they can be easily seen by biologists and interns from the top of Lighthouse Hill.



Seabirds: a Window into California’s Marine Protected Areas


Adapting to change is something wildlife populations have always done. But now they face exceptionally rapid rates of change—on land and in the ocean. They need conservation measures that provide more time, and room, for adapting.

Climate-smart conservation is one such approach. It mixes mitigation and adaptation strategies to increase the resiliency and persistence of ecosystems in the face of climate change. On land, climate-smart habitat restoration is one effective way to revive and support ecosystems. In marine systems, one successful strategy for helping wildlife populations adapt to rapid change is to designate safe havens, free from pressures of fishing and other human impacts.

California’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) aim to do just this—to give fishes, whales, seabirds and the whole marine food web protected places for feeding and breeding.

“The MPAs off California’s coast are a valuable tool in our conservation toolbox,” says Dan Robinette, a lead marine scientist with Point Blue Conservation Science. “They can buy some time for seabird populations to adapt to an ocean environment that’s changing dramatically. And seabirds, like other marine life forms, will adapt if given enough time and space.”

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article: Claire Peaslee
photo: Point Blue

An ankle monitor for seabirds



No, this shiny piece of bling on this bird’s leg isn’t jewelry or an identification tag. It is more like an ankle monitor that police place on parolees to find out their location.

It is called a geolocation (GLS) tag and lets biologists track birds by recording light levels. The time of sunrise and sunset lets scientists calculate latitude while the time of midday lets them calculate longitude.

While this method of tracking is not as accurate as GPS, GLS devices are a lot lighter than GPS models and are able to be carried by smaller birds.

Many seabirds can be located in the spring and summer because they have to come to land to breed. But many of their whereabouts during the winter are unknown. Last year, Point Blue Conservation Science placed GLS tags on seabirds nesting on Southeast Farallon Island, and some of those birds have now come back to the island this year.

Point Blue would like to thank these birds for their service to science as the information they have brought back will be used to fill in our knowledge gaps in the birds’ life history.


photos: Kiah Walker

Ready-made Cassin’s auklet homes



This is a Cassin’s auklet nest box on Southeast Farallon Island. While not underground like the bird’s natural burrow, the covered shelter still provides protection from gulls as the tube is too small for a gull to to squeeze through to get at an egg or chick. But the gulls will poop on them — a lot.

Not only do the boxes provide a ready made shelter that the auklets do not need to create themselves, it helps biologists out as well. The top of the box has a lid that can easily be removed so scientists can peek in and grab the bird for measuring, banding and checking on the egg or chicks.

There is an extra covering shade on top of the box to keep the inside cool. The layer of air between the cover and the top of the box acts as great insulator to prevent the box from overheating. The rocks on top of the cover keep it from blowing away in the 30+ knot winds that frequently blow across the island.

Although they may look a little weird, the Cassin’s auklets seem to like the nest boxes just fine. In fact, over 75% of the nest boxes on the island are being inhabited by Cassin’s auklets and their young in the beginning of May.

Even rhinoceros auklets, which are over two times larger than Cassin’s seem to like them. There are larger next boxes placed around the island for them, but like true San Franciscans, they also seem to look for smaller, low budget dwellings.

Best Job Ever: Mapping “California’s Galápagos”


Cartographers and National Geographic grantees Marty Schnure and Ross Donihue traveled to the little-known Farallon National Wildlife Refuge to document the scientists who live there and to create an interactive digital map to allow the public to explore the islands from afar.

The Farallon National Wildlife Refuge is closed to public access to protect this wildlife hot spot. “Immediately when you step onto the islands you realize the island belongs to the wildlife and we’re just visitors here,” said Donihue. Schnure and Donihue are National Geographic grantees who have worked in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Point Blue Conservation Science (Point Blue) to do fieldwork on the Farallon Islands at multiple points over the last year.

Schnure explained the bigger picture about conservation advocacy through their organization, Maps for Good. She said something that people ask them all the time related to this project is, “It’s already a national wildlife refuge. It’s already protected, so what are you advocating for?” Schnure explained, “What we’re advocating for is increased awareness of this place. Protected places need continual support in terms of funding really important long-term research, as well as defending the protection of these lands against threats from development.”

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photo: Ross Donihue