An overview of activity on the Farallon Islands, from their discovery by Sir Francis Drake to the Egg War to Nuclear waste dumping to today.
Created by kqedquest on Aug 12, 2009
Last updated: 08/30/10 at 11:25 AM
The California Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and PRBO Conservation Science teamed up to launch a live streaming web camera.
This camera, which sits atop the lighthouse, is used to observe breeding bird colonies, migrating birds, and breeding seal and sea lion colonies. Additionally, It is used to observe ocean conditions and the off-shore activity of birds, whales and, possibly, great white sharks.
PRBO scientists monitoring Cassin's auklets, small seabirds that raise their chicks on tiny crustaceans (krill), hoped that 2005's breeding failure was due to a natural temperature fluctuation. But when ocean temperatures rose again in 2006, further reducing the krill population around the islands, they began to blame global warming for the unprecedented auklet drop-off. The lack of krill also affected the rockfish population, the primary food source for the islands' common murre. Luckily, 2008 saw a dramatic krill rebound, with ocean temperatures dropping back down to healthy levels, but scientists remain wary.
Gradually, PRBO worked to restrict damaging human contact with the islands (fisherman often shot high-powered rifles at sea lions and helicopter arrivals sparked mammalian panic). In addition, the organization helped remove domestic animals and feral rabbits. With human contrivances at a distance, Farallon wildlife began a comeback. Murre population increased to 20,500 by 1973 and over 88,000 by 1982. Rhinoceros auklets and Elephant seals returned to the islands in 1972.
Despite protection afforded by Federal "Reservation" status, nearly 50,000 drums of radioactive waste were dumped on the ocean floor between 1946 and 1970. Navy gunners were instructed to shoot holes in barrels that did not sink immediately. While Government officials claim the dumping included only "low-level radioactive waste", recently declassified Navy documents suggest more serious contamination. A 2001 investigative story in SF Weekly suggests that the USS Independence, a 10,000 ton air craft carrier converted into a radioactive lab, may have been sunk by the Navy near the Farallones.
Egging and hunting gradually took their toll on the seabird and seal populations, and oil tankers dumping near the islands all but finished the job. The human population and their domestic animals also interfered with native wildlife. In 1896, the California Academy of Sciences and the American Ornithological Union prevailed upon the Lighthouse board to prohibit egg collection and restrict access to certain rookeries during the nesting season. The Audubon Society of the Pacific pressed for eliminating intentional oil dumping. Eventually, President Theodore Roosevelt signed Executive Order 1043, the resulting Farallon Reservation "a preserve and breeding ground for native birds".
Two New England style duplexes were built to house families of lighthouse keepers, the landing platform was rebuilt to ease comings and goings, and a proper fog signal was installed. To facilitate work on a coal-fired steam plant, a narrow rail line was laid, with a cart pulled by Jack the mule, and his successor, Jerry. In 1897, the San Francisco school board sent a Miss Daisy Dowd to the islands with classroom supplies (and a flock of homing pigeons so she could communicate with the mainland). Though life remained harsh—death from disease was not uncommon—modernization was coming to the Farallones.
Chicken eggs were hard to come by in San Francisco's gold rush days, so those who braved the 70 mile round-trip voyage to the Farallones to collect murre eggs (double the size of a chicken egg with an orange-reddish yolk) were richly rewarded—up to $1.50 per dozen. In 1851, high season for land grabbing, six men claimed the Farallones and formed the Pacific Egg Company, taking active steps to defend their territory from poachers. In 1863, a series of encounters between the company and a group of rivals escalated, and on June 2, a short gun fight left one dead on each side and five wounded. David Batchelder, leader of the trespassing party, called for retreat, temporarily securing the Pacific Egg Company's exclusive position.
With the discovery of gold in 1948, San Francisco was transformed from a sleepy hamlet into a major port nearly over night. Thousands of argonauts descended on the Golden Gate, often wrecking their ships on the fog-drenched, craggy approach. Congress quickly authorized the construction of 16 lighthouses along the Pacific shore in 1852, and the Oriole dropped anchor at the Farallones with artisans and laborers a few months later. The first plan, for a Cape Cod model keepers' house, was impractical (the construction slated for "the summit of a precipitous mass of rock" up which "few workers, if any, can make it by use of feet alone—the hands must be brought into requisition"); the second plan resulted in a lighthouse too small to fit the giant Fresnel lens (18 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter) shipped from France; finally, Major Hartman Bache oversaw construction of a functioning lighthouse, ready for business in December 1855.
The company, already installed at Fort Ross in Sonoma County, established a permanent outpost on the islands, providing vast quantities of sea lion and seal meat, skin, and blubber for the mainland, along with eggs and seabirds—mostly common murre. Living conditions for the human population, ranging from a dozen to a hundred depending on the time of year, were magnanimously described by 16 year-old Zakahar Tchitchinihoff as "very disagreeable and damp," whose father, weakened by scurvy, drowned while reaching for a treacherously perched egg. By 1834, the annual yield in fur seals was down to 60, and the Russians finally departed in 1841, a few years before the gold rush triggered the most profitable era for the Farallones.
The first ships set sail from Boston, kicking off the wildly successful China-Boston trade: Sugar, tobacco, and weapons from Boston were exchanged for furs along the Pacific coast, which were sold in Canton, and fine cottons, tea, porcelain, and silk were returned to New England. Sea otter pelts sold for nearly $40 in Canton but otter hunting required the skillful cooperation of Russian-employed Aleuts (indigenous Alaskans). Fur seal skins (closer to $2 each) were much more easily obtained on the Farallones, as hunters would scare them into clumps on shore and whack them on the heads with wooden clubs. An estimated 30,000 seals' hides were collected in 1810 and 50,000 in 1812.
The English privateer, like the Spanish explorer Cabrillo before him, was charting the "back side of America" in search of the mythical Straits of Anian—rumored to link the Pacific with the Atlantic. After anchoring his ship Golden Hind in the shelter of Drake's Bay at Point Reyes, he stopped at the Farallones, naming them the Islands of Saint James. As he and his men went ashore for provisions, collecting seabirds and seal meat, they became the first Europeans to set foot in what is now part of the city of San Francisco, 41 years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.