The native Americans called them the Islands of the Dead and never set foot on them, at least not earthly feet. The first European to see them was the Portuguese explorer, Cabrillo, employed by Spain sailing off the coast in 1542. But the first human to actually walk on the island was Francis Drake. After spending five weeks on the Point Reyes peninsula during the summer of 1579 repairing his damaged ship, Drake sailed west. He stopped at the largest island to gather seabird eggs and to salt sea lion meat for the voyage into the unknown. Drake named the tiny archipelago, the Islands of St. James. The name didn’t stick. It is difficult to imagine the local fishermen catching rockfish off the “Islands of St. James.” That name seems too refined for the stark and windswept isles.
In 1769 the explorer Juan Francisco de Bodega named the islands Los Farallones de los Friales, the rocky islets of the Brothers. That moniker stuck. “Friales” honors the Fransican monks who were busy subduing and baptizing the native “heathens” of California.
There are actually three islands or -more properly – three groups of mountain peaks jutting above the surface of the sea. The South Farallon group is the largest and best known. Located 26 miles southwest of the Golden Gate Bridge, it consists of about 120 acres and is the only island capable of marginally supporting humans. The Middle Farallon, 3 miles northwest, is nothing more than a large rock. It is colloquially known as the Pimple, a disgusting but appropriate term for a guano-covered rock. Four miles northwest from the Pimple is the North Farallon group. It is an inaccessible assemblage of seven steep and rugged peaks.
The wildlife on the islands suffered only minor depredations from passing seafarers until the arrival of the O’Kain. This New England vessel and four other sealing boats landed at the Farallons on August 1810 and for the next 22 months the crew slaughtered northern fur seals. It is estimated that 150,000 seal pelts from the Farallons were sold in China for $2.50 a piece. Most of the animals that were disturbed and exploited have returned to repopulate the Farallons but the northern fur seals never recovered from this intense carnage and are still absent from the area. Isn’t capitalism great?
Soon after the O’Kain left the Russians arrived. They had been hunting the northern fur seal and sea otter on the breeding grounds in Alaska and followed the animals south into California. Winters in Russia can be very cold and there was a large market for the warm pelts of these marine mammals. Ft. Ross was the center of Russian occupation but there were outposts in Bodega Bay and on Angel Island. Aleut and Pomo Indian slaves did much of the work for the Russians. They regularly kayaked out to the Farallon Islands to seasonal camps to gather bird down, eggs, sea lions, and fur seals. The Russians sold out in 1841 and went home. Big mistake for them.
The Farallons were given a slight reprieve, very slight, until the discovery of gold precipitated an invasion of California. Soon there were many people in San Francisco with a burning desire for eggs at breakfast. Petaluma was yet to become the chicken capital of the West. And when there’s a need, there’s an entrepreneur.
Doc Robinson came west to start a theatre company but soon discovered more money was to be made by stealing. He plundered eggs from the common murres nesting at the Farallons and sold them for $1.75 a dozen. The Farallon Egg Company was soon formed and every May through July ten to fifteen men gathered, packaged, shipped and sold the eggs. During the early days 600,000 eggs were taken per year; an estimated 14 million eggs were removed in a 40-year period. The original murre population of a half million was reduced to several thousand by the turn of the century.
The infamous Farallon Egg war (surely every California child knows this story) was fought on June 6, 1863. Bat Shelter and his gang of 25 armed men attempted to invade the Southeast Island and depose the Farallon Egg Company. After a 20 minute gun battle five men lay wounded and one dead. Bat was driven off. Shoot-out at the OK Egg Ranch? It almost has that Louis L’Amour flavor.
As the port of San Francisco became busier, ships off the fog- shrouded coast kept running into the Farallons. So construction began on a lighthouse at the top of the 317-foot island in 1852. The light was lit on January 1, 1856, the third lighthouse along the Pacific coast.
With the arrival of the four keepers came the necessary human accouterments: wives, children, rabbits, mules, cats, turkeys, goats, chickens, and house mice. Rabbits nested in auklet burrows, cats ate baby birds, children drove the seals and sea lions off the breeding rocks, and wives hung laundry in gull colonies. An island occupied solely by seabirds and marine mammals for 10,000 years was severely disrupted in a decade.
In 1880 when a fog signal was being installed on the island, a fistfight broke out between the keepers and the eggers. The eggers feared the seabirds would stop laying due to the noise. The birds kept laying, but this was the last straw for the Lighthouse Service. The U.S. army arrived and permanently evicted the Egg Company. The keepers then took over the profitable business and golden egging continued until 1905.
One of the birds that the eggers avoided was the tufted puffin; it could bite a finger to the bone. However beginning in the twentieth century a more pervasive evil – the internal combustion engine – threatened. Ships routinely pumped their bilges out by the Farallons before entering San Francisco Bay. Tufted puffins and other birds that had survived egging began washing up on the Farallons –oiled and dead.
There was some awareness of the biological importance of the Islands. John Kinder, lighthouse keeper from 1917-1927, was a charter member of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. Teddy Roosevelt declared the North and Middle Farallon a wildlife refuge in 1906. But it wasn’t until 1969 when the South Farallon was declared a National Wildlife Refuge that the prospects brightened for the animals.
Another crucial event was automation of the lighthouse in 1972. This ended 117 years of continuous occupation by the community of lighthouse keepers. Currently the Coast Guard only visits periodically to conduct routine maintenance on the light.
Since 1970 the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (www.prbo.org) has acted as caretaker of the Farallon Islands. The PRBO not only protects the islands from unauthorized visitors, but directs important biological research as well.
Many of the seabirds and marine mammals have either returned to the Farallons or greatly increased their population in recent years. Elephant seals, absent for over 100 years, have begun breeding again, over 400 were born last year. The twelve species of seabirds that nest on the island contain over 250,000 members. This is the largest seabird rookery in the U.S. outside of Alaska.
The Farallons are within the boundary of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. This act signed into law in 1981 affords additional protection. But 50,000 barrels of low-level radioactive wastes dumped near the Farallons for twenty years by the US government are leaking. As ship traffic increases into the SF Bay it also increases the chances for a catastrophic oil spill. We are watching.
My dear friend Peter White has written the definitive book – The Farallon Islands, Sentinels of the Golden Gate. Scottwall Associates, San Francisco. 1995.