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'It's Like You're on a Different Planet': In Search of Whales (and Other Creatures) at the Mysterious Farallon Islands

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A large, rocky island, with waves crashing around it.
Southeast Farallon Island, about 27 miles west of San Francisco, is the largest and only inhabited island of the Farallones. (Rhys Watkin/Oceanic Society)

If you look out west from San Francisco, when the fog clears and the light is just right, you might be able to see a cluster of islands jutting out of the ocean, like sharp, misshapen teeth.

The Farallon Islands, 27 miles west of San Francisco, get their name from the Spanish word farallón, meaning “sea cliff.” The islands are a national wildlife refuge, and home to the largest seabird breeding colony in the contiguous United States.

Multiple types of seals and sea lions lie on wet rocks.
There are five types of seals and sea lions that live on the Farallones: harbor seals, California sea lions, Steller's sea lions, northern fur seals and elephant seals. (Rhys Watkin/Oceanic Society)

Aside from the hundreds of thousands of birds, the islands — and the waters around them — are brimming with a variety of wildlife, including thousands of seals and sea lions, gray and humpback whales, sharks and even orcas.

“It's completely wild and crazy out there,” said Chris Biertuempfel, the California program manager for the Oceanic Society, a nonprofit founded in 1969 by a group of sailors and scientists dedicated to ocean conservation. “It's like you're on a different planet.”

A small cluster of buildings on a rocky island.
The Farallon Islands are off-limits to the public, but conservation scientists are allowed to stay at the field research station on Southeast Farallon Island. (Rhys Watkin/Oceanic Society)

In addition to taking political action, the organization sought to increase the public's awareness of marine environmental issues, and began leading oceanic expeditions around the world that combined tourism and conservation work. And in 1972, the group started leading whale-watching expeditions to Southeast Farallon Island.

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On a recent Sunday, I joined one of their all-day tours around the island.

Thousands of birds packed together on a rocky cliff.
These common murres are sometimes referred to as 'flying penguins' because of their tuxedoed feathers. During peak breeding season in 2021, there were about 250,000 common murres on Southeast Farallon Island. (Rhys Watkin/Oceanic Society)

At 70 acres, Southeast Farallon Island is the largest of the Farallones, and the only one inhabited by humans. Conservation scientists, mostly from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have a field research station there, where they stay for months at a time.

But it's strictly off-limits to everyone else — including us.

We cruise into Fisherman’s Bay, and see hundreds of thousands of breeding seabirds coating the face of the island.

It’s not long before you notice the smell.

“It's definitely very pungent,” said Michael Pierson, an Oceanic Society naturalist. “It has a high level of ammonia for obvious reasons, right? It's a lot of guano … kind of like a cat box that hasn't been changed for a while that maybe has some rotten fish in it as well.”

The slender, black-and-white birds are called common murres, Pierson said, and during peak breeding season last year, there were about 250,000 of them, according to the island's researchers, who conduct daily counts.

“They nest in the same exact location every single year,” Pierson said. “So out of 250,000 neighbors, you're going to find the exact same two neighbors to lay your egg [next to] and raise your chick for the season.”

And, because the birds lay them on the rocky cliffs, the eggs are shaped like teardrops, “which is helpful for the birds because it causes the egg to just kind of roll in a circle instead of rolling off the cliff,” Pierson said.

From Fisherman’s Bay, the boat circumnavigates the island. Along the way, we’re treated to a close-up look of a tufted puffin, and I spot a group of seals chasing after our boat.

“There’s two different kinds of sounds we’re hearing. One of them is the bark and then another one is more of a roar, kind of a belchy roar,” Pierson said. “The belchy roar is coming from the Steller's sea lion, where the barking is coming from the California sea lion.”

A gray or humpback whale lifts its tail fin out of the water — known as fluking — near the Farallon Islands. (Rhys Watkin/Oceanic Society)

Our tour group then heads back toward San Francisco, stopping to check gray whales and a mother humpback whale with her calf.

Pierson tells me his favorite part of bringing people out to the Farallones is getting to see them experience it for the first time.

A group of orca whales in the water.
Passengers on the Oceanic Society’s tour to the Farallones spotted a group of female orcas, and also got a rare sighting of a male orca. (Rhys Watkin/Oceanic Society)

“It’s this mysterious place that they’ve heard of but never been to,” he said. “So when they first get out here and they get to experience it for the first time, it’s always kind of magical just to see the sheer number of birds that are packed in on a hillside, or seals and sea lions that are coating the rocks around the outside. And then you get those really rare sightings where, if you see a great white shark or something like that, then everybody completely loses their minds.”

For a chance to see puffins, whales or even sharks for yourself, the Oceanic Society leads tours around the island every weekend from April to November, weather permitting.

An orca whale facing the camera.
An orca spotted off Southeast Farallon Island. (Rhys Watkin/Oceanic Society)

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