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The Bleak and Menacing History of San Francisco’s Farallon Islands

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A sepia toned photo of tall rocky land masses surrounded by foamy sea water.
The Sugarloaf Islands of the Farallons, as they were seen by Carleton Watkins in 1869.  (Sepia Times/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Farallon Islands have always had proverbial dark clouds hanging over them. The rocky outcrops 28 miles west of San Francisco have long held ominous nicknames, including “Islands of the Dead” and “the Devil’s Teeth.” Take even a passing glimpse at the islands’ history and both of those titles feel perfectly justified — and not just because of the more than 400 shipwrecks they’ve caused.

Today, the Farallons are only accessible to birds, animals and biologists. This is undoubtedly a good thing — any time humans get close to the islands, terrible things seem to occur.

Some examples of note:

A large rabbit with thin legs and very large ears faces forward. It has very wide eyes.
Russians brought rabbits to the Farallon Islands in the early 1800s. (Getty Images Plus/ Darren415)

Furious rabbits

A party of Russian seal hunters landed on South Farallon in the early 1800s, bringing with them a handful of rabbits. Nothing good came of it.

Occupying stone houses they built along Fort Ross, the hunters went about systematically annihilating the local populations of fur seals, sea lions and sea otters for their pelts. Elephant seals were killed for their blubber. As the hunters were busy focusing on murdering the sea-life, their rabbits multiplied unimpeded and took shelter in a large, 20-foot-high cave on the southeast slope of Lighthouse Hill. The ragtag army of bunnies eventually overran the island.

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“[The rabbits of South Farallon] devoured what meager vegetation there once was,” one 1960 Examiner article reported. “[They] ate dead fish, seaweed and each other … According to reports, they were the meanest, ugliest rabbits in the world.”

Once the settlers had destroyed the local animal communities to the point that hunting was no longer profitable, they abandoned the Farallons in 1840. The rabbits, however, stuck around. Several attempts were made to thin their numbers over the years, but the efforts came to naught. That is, until 1972, when biologists from Point Reyes Bird Observatory arrived to assess avian numbers and concluded that the rabbits, as an invasive species, were negatively impacting the bird population.

The scientists subsequently spent years killing off the rabbits. The population was eventually wiped out in 1975. Today, a similar mass slaughter is being considered for house mice thriving on the islands. Apparently, everyone who sets foot on the Farallons wants to immediately kill anything with fur.

A black and white image showing men walking along a rocky island, each holding a large basket.
Egg gatherers in the 1870s, spread out and keen to steal the offspring of every murre bird on the island. (OpenSFHistory/ wnp4/wnp4.1097)

Egg wars

Turns out animals with feathers haven’t always fared well on the islands either. In the late 1840s and throughout the 1850s, the influx of gold-seekers to San Francisco caused a population boom that put a massive strain on local agriculture.

In 1949, the food scarcity inspired a pharmacist named Doc Robinson to sail to the Farallons with his brother-in-law and raid the eggs of the murre birds that nested on the islands. After their first egg haul netted them $3,000 (about $122,000 in 2024 money), crews of other egg hunters quickly followed suit. In the four decades that followed, approximately 14 million murre eggs were stolen and sent to San Francisco, and rival crews of poachers went to war with each other. Guns and even canons were fired as the egg thieves fought. Several were shot and killed. Tensions were so high that even the local lighthouse keepers were assaulted.

The egg wars continued until the end of the 19th century, and were ultimately brought to an end not by the authorities, but by the establishment of Petaluma as an egg farming hub. By then, the murre population had been decimated. Despite the Farallons’ current status as a bird sanctuary, murre numbers have never recovered. Their population remains only a quarter of its pre-Gold Rush size.

A war ship in unrecognizable, blackened ruins.
The USS Independence (CVL 22) on July 2, 1946 after it was hit with an atomic explosion, and before its radioactive scrap was buried in the Bay near the Farallons. (CORBIS/ Corbis via Getty Images)

Nuclear waste

Back in 1951, the Farallons were chosen as the final resting place for an aircraft carrier called USS Independence (CVL-22). At the time it was sunk with torpedos, the vessel was extremely radioactive, having been used in the now-infamous 1946 nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll.

To make matters even more toxic, between 1946 and 1970, at least 47,500 barrels of radioactive waste were ditched in a 540-square-mile area, starting just south of the Farallons. Those barrels were notoriously unstable and by 1990, investigators reported that many of them had broken open. A multitude more could not even be located. By then, the problem was well-established. In 1982, Governor Jerry Brown made a statement to the House Subcommittee on Oceanography to point out the dangers of dumping nuclear waste in the ocean.

“In California,” he wrote, “we have learned from our experience with the Farallon Islands nuclear dumpsite that remedial action is virtually impossible when unforeseen problems arise. The specter of leaking barrels of plutonium now lurks on the ocean bottom less than 50 miles from the Golden Gate.”

A 21-year-old man from Burlingame named John Rochette is wheeled away from a coast guard rescue helicopter after being attacked by “a huge shark” while diving near the Farallon Islands in 1963. Both his legs sustained very serious injuries. (Bettmann/ Getty Images)

Shark attacks

In 1990, a headline in the Examiner declared: “Bay Area Becoming Shark Attack Capital.” The story followed a series of attacks in which humans had near misses with gigantic sharks — some reportedly 18 feet long.

The attacks near the Farallons during that period were plentiful: Concord scuba diver LeRoy French was saved from serious injury when the attacking shark was scared off by his oxygen tank. Mark Tiserand from San Francisco wound up with teeth embedded in his leg that had to be removed by doctors. A paddle boarder named Rodney Orr was flipped off his board and immediately found his head in the mouth of a shark. He escaped with “bite gashes around his left eye and neck” after clubbing the animal with a spear gun.

At the time, Steinhart Aquarium scientist John McCosker said that attacks were most likely to happen in what he called “The Red Triangle” — a patch of water 25 miles west of the islands where sharks hunt sea lions and harbor seals.

A man in 1960s-era swimming cap and goggles swims aggressively in the ocean.
It took Ted Erikson three attempts to swim from the Farallones to Marin. He finally succeeded in 1967. (San Francisco Examiner/ Newspapers.com)

The worst swimming on Earth

In 1965, Ted Erikson took it upon himself to swim the English channel between France and the U.K., and then turn around and go right back again. The roundtrip took him 30 hours and three minutes and set a record. And yet, when it came to swimming the span from the Farallon Islands to Marin, he struggled, succeeding only on his third attempt.

His first jaunt from the Farallons was an outright failure. His second in 1966 ended 17 hours in, with him being pulled from the water in the middle of the night, almost unconscious and “swimming in all directions.” A multitude of swimmers before him — including a 15-year-old girl named Myra Thompson — had suffered similar endings on their masochistic swim journeys.

Bizarrely, before his third swim, Erikson had contacted “various marine life keepers” and asked them to donate a dolphin to swim alongside him. According to the Examiner, he believed this would “discourage the sharks.” In the end, he was forced to make the journey sans dolphin. Sharks were discouraged the good old-fashioned way — gunshots.

Erikson, a 38-year-old research chemist from Chicago, finally completed his journey on Sept. 17, 1967, boosted by mild weather and “relatively warm water.” After successfully finishing his 14-hour, 38-minute swim, Erikson — like an absolute maniac — referred to his victory as “a lark.”

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More than a half-century later, it’s clear very little about the Farallons should be described in such a way.

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