San Francisco's Farallon Islands are mysterious, wild, and remote, but a new book has put them in the spotlight. Its author, SUSAN CASEY, explains why this lonely place needs to be studied, marveled at―and left alone

Susan Casey,  –  May 17, 2005

The world’s wildest places do not ordinarily sit in thebackyards of its most populous cities, but the Farallon Islands, anarchipelago of 10 rocky islets 27 miles west of the Golden GateBridge, are anything but ordinary. Visitors approaching by boathave been known to gasp when they first glimpse the graveyard ofwrecked ships, dubbed them the “Devil’s Teeth.”

Despite the haunting reputation of years past, the islands areteeming with life, drawing researchers and the simply daring to aunique and fragile ecosystem. But the increasing attention focusedon this small archipelago sparks an emotional debate that hasfar-reaching ramifications. How do we learn from the secrets of ourwildest places but still keep them remote?

The jagged topography of the Devil’s Teeth does not invite aperson to kick back and stay awhile, and neither do theregulations. The islands are a tightly protected National WildlifeRefuge within a National Marine Sanctuary. The public may not stepashore, and for good reason: Every patch of land is claimed bynesting seabirds, and a single misplaced footstep could crush aburrow, or worse, a chick. Steep rock walls have made building adock impossible, so researchers coming ashore must be plucked outof the water by crane, a tricky process that’s not for thefainthearted. The total human population of the Farallones isstrictly capped at eight―all biologists from PRBOConservation Science, a local organization that monitors theislands in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For ornithologists, a stint at PRBO’s Farallon field station isa sort of feathered heaven. Sixty-five-acre Southeast FarallonIsland, a stretch of rock the size of a few city blocks, is home tothe country’s largest seabird colony outside Alaska. And sightingsof rare vagrant land birds, off course in their migrations, are aregular occurrence. Birds that ought to be at the North Pole orwinging their way over Asia instead blunder down to the lighthouseor land in one of the island’s three small trees.

Offshore, the wildlife is equally impressive, and Farallonbiologists often witness extraordinary natural spectacles. InJanuary 1998, a pod of dolphins conservatively estimated at 1,000strong cruised past the islands, taking more than three minutes topass. And on one particularly fine October day, biologists counted61 blue whales feeding in nearby waters.

All the animals are here for one reason: food. The islands areperched at the ragged edge of the continental shelf, right beforeit plunges more than 2 miles down to the abyssal plain. Theupwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water at this ledge makes thelocation a showcase for the entire food chain, from microscopicplankton to the ocean’s most magnificent predator, the great whiteshark.

They are here, and they are hungry,” reads the Farallon logbookentry for October 7, 1998. It’s a typical note for that time ofyear: Each fall, white sharks arrive at the Farallones, attractedby the northern elephant-seal colony and clusters of California sealions, harbor seals, and even a smattering of endangered Stellersea lions. The sharks remain for about three months, disappearingin winter and then reappearing in September. Charter fishing-boatcaptain Brian Guiles, who makes frequent trips past the islands,spots the animals with regularity: “They’re huge. I want to saylike a Volkswagen.”

That a large, stable population of mature white sharks liveswithin the 415 area code comes as a surprise to most people. Butsince 1987, PRBO biologists and other shark scientists have beenconducting cutting-edge research on the Farallones’ sharks. Amongtheir discoveries is this startling fact: Year after year, it’s thesame sharks that are showing up. To date, about 100 individualshave been identified― and in some cases satellitetagged―their appearances and behaviors meticulouslydocumented. This virtual neighborhood of white sharks within aprotected area offers something found nowhere else on earth: thechance to study them in their natural environment, unaffected bychumming or baiting. As a result, the researchers have gotten toknow the predators one-on-one.

“It’s unexpected to get on a personal level with the sharks,”says Scot Anderson, one of the Farallones’ long-term white-sharkresearchers. Observers have noted, for instance, that Cuttail, a15-foot male, is feisty, and Whiteslash, an 18-foot female, ismellow and likes to hang around the research boat. They know thatHalf-Fin is goofy, and Gouge is aggressive, and Cal Ripfin issneaky and tries to steal seal carcasses from other sharks.

It’s a revelation that the white shark, presumed to be adiabolical eating machine, is a more nuanced creature. But there’sstill so much more to learn. Surprisingly, in a time when we’vedecoded the human genome, the biology of white sharks remains apuzzle, and the missing pieces include even basic information suchas the animal’s average life span. Understandably, people areintrigued by this forgotten corner of California. For visitorshearty enough to withstand a bone-jarring eight-hour voyage, a daytrip aboard one of the whale-watching vessels that loop around thearea is deeply rewarding. And for now, this is one of the onlylegal ways for the public to get close to the Farallones. In recentmonths, a bill in Congress proposed allowing more casual access,but thankfully this shortsighted plan seems to have gone away. Itwould be heartbreakingly easy to love the islands to death.

Over the decades, the Farallones have taken a drubbing at humanhands. In the early 19th century, fur traders wiped out its seals;during the Gold Rush, a lucrative and larcenous trade in seabirdeggs killed millions of common murres. And then, between 1947 and1970, the Navy deposited 47,500 barrels of low-level radioactivewaste into the surrounding waters. It was only when the entiregroup of islands was designated a National Wildlife Refuge in 1969that the Farallones and their wildlife finally got a break. Slowly,some populations are beginning to show signs of recovery.

For Westerners, the stakes are high. The Farallones sit in aprecarious position, right in the middle of several busy shippinglanes, next to a metropolis. In protecting these islands, we’reprotecting something deeply important. “I think it touches a placein people that is long forgotten,” says biologist Phil Henderson,who spent 17 seasons at the islands. “Our wild side.”

Susan Casey is development editor for Time Inc. (Sunset’s parentcompany). Her book The Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsessionand Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks is being published this month by Henry Holt & Company.Naturalist-led whale-watching trips to the Farallones are runSat-Sun Jun-Nov by the Oceanic Society ($85, no children under 10; or 415/474-3385).

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