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A History of San Francisco's Wild, Raw Farallon Islands

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Sitting 26 miles outside the Golden Gate, the Farallon Islands are a home to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. (Courtesy of Point Blue Conservation Science)

Whether or not the Farallon Islands are visible from shore is always a good measure of how clear a day we’re having in the San Francisco Bay Area. Situated 27 miles west of the Golden Gate, the cluster of 20 islets is often obscured by fog or marine layer — but on the clearest of days they emerge as a blurry silhouette on the horizon line.

The islands are closed to the public because they’re now a wildlife refuge where a dazzling array of birds and other wildlife thrive. But over the years, the islands have served many purposes, and been home to a few brave souls willing to weather the inhospitable conditions.

Oakland resident Ali Moghaddam was enjoying a day in Pacifica with his wife when he first learned about the islands from a placard overlooking the sea. It gave him just enough information to want to know more, so he sent this question to the Bay Curious team: What is the history of the Farallon Islands?

The sun setting over the Pacific ocean. The Golden Gate Bridge is an silhouette, and on the horizon, the Farallon Islands stick out of the ocean.
The Farallon Islands are often obscured by fog or the marine layer, but on the clearest of days, you can see them from land. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

The island’s early visitors

The first people of the Bay Area were wary of the Farallons. Local tribes called them the Islands of the Dead, and it’s said they never stepped foot on them.

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English explorer, pirate and trader of enslaved people Sir Francis Drake is the first person to leave a record of visiting the islands. He and his men made their way onshore in 1579, where they collected seal meat and eggs. They left after just one day. Drake named them the “Islands of St. James” — a name that didn’t stick.

The name that did stick came about 25 years later, when Friar Antonio de la Asunción, sailing on a Spanish expedition, described the string of islands in his diary as “seven farallones close together.” Farallon is Spanish for steep rock or cliff. This time around, the name took.

An illustration of the Farallons, with waves splashing up on the rocky shore in the foreground.
An illustration of the Farallons featured in the 1874 book “Western Wanderings: A Record of Travel in the Evening Land, etc. Illustrated” by J.W. Boddam-Whetham. (Courtesy of the British Library/Flickr)

A land pillaged

The first people known to live on the islands arrived in 1819. They were Russian fur hunters and members of the Aleut community, who likely were working as enslaved people. They lived on the Southeast Farallon, which is the only island large enough to support humans. They came to the islands to harvest fur seals — the warm pelts were in high demand in Russia.

Zackhar Chichinoff was one of the Russians living on the island. His story has been recounted in several books over the years:

A schooner took us down to the islands but we had to cruise around for over a week before we could make a landing. We had a few planks with us and some canvas, and with that we built huts for shelter. The water was very bad also, being taken from hollow places in the rocks where it stood all the year round. We had no fire-arms, the sea lions were killed with clubs or spears. Scurvy broke out among us and in a short time all were sick except myself. All the next winter we passed there in great misery and when the spring came the men were too weak to kill sea-lions, and all we could do was to crawl around the cliffs and gather some sea birds’ eggs and suck them raw.

Despite the difficult living conditions and basic weaponry, settlers managed to kill an estimated 200,000 fur seals on the Farallons over the course of a few years. Captain Benjamin Morrell Jr. visited the island in 1825 and offered this update in his diary:

Many years ago this place was the resort of numerous fur seal but the Russians have made such a havoc among them that there is scarcely a breed left. On this barren rock we found a Russian family and twenty-three Codiaks, or northwest Indians, with their bark canoes. They were employed in taking sea-leopards, sea-horses, and sea-elephants for their skins, oil and flesh … at the time of our visit they had about fifty tons of this beef cured and were expecting the arrival of a Russian vessel to take off the beef and leave them a supply of fresh water, there being none on the island.

By 1834 the fur seal population was decimated. The animals that survived abandoned the island. It would be 140 years before they were seen on the island again; in the 1970s, a few fur seals started to return to the island. The first pup was spotted in 1996, and since then the population has continued to grow. In 2019, Point Blue Conservation Science reported that about 2,000 pups are born on the island each year.

More than a dozen fur seals in the foreground, and countless more in the background. A few look directly at the camera.
The fur seal population has rebounded, as seen in this 2011 photo. (Jim Tietz/PRBO Conservation Science)

The Egg War

Things were quiet on the islands for a few years, but interest in them picked up again during the Gold Rush. Food scarcity prompted entrepreneurial men to venture out to the Farallons in search of supplies. Because the islands are the largest seabird nesting colony south of Alaska, what they found there were eggs. Lots and lots of eggs.

A group of men clean a week's haul of seabird eggs.
A group of men clean a week’s haul of seabird eggs. (Arthur Bolton/California Academy of Sciences )

The eggs they collected turned out to be a hot commodity in protein-starved San Francisco, and the egg hunters quickly found themselves quite rich. An industry sprung up, which Mildred Hoover described in her 1932 book about the Farallons:

There was one essential item in the equipment of the workers – a loose fitting jacket with capacious pockets inside the front. At a given signal, the day’s operations began: every man started on the run for a favored spot among the nests. … When the loose-fronted jackets were full of eggs the men descended the slippery rocks with care to deposit their booty in hidden baskets – hidden because of the Gulls. Accidents were not unknown and to fall while wearing a coat full of eggs delayed the worker at least long enough to wash out the pockets with cold sea water.

By the early 1850s, about a half-million eggs were gathered each year. Egg collecting became so lucrative that in 1863 two men were killed in “The Great Egg War.” (We actually did a whole Bay Curious episode about The Great Egg War if you’d like to learn more.)

But just as with the fur seals, overharvesting of eggs caused damage to the animal world. The wild murre population plummeted. Eventually, the federal government ruled all commercial eggers off the islands.

A black and white photo taken on the Farallon Islands. A boat has been pulled onto the top of the rocks by a wooden, crane-like device.
In this 1871 image, you can see a crane-like device that was used to haul small boats safely onto the island. A similar technique is used today. (Eadweard Muybridge photography, courtesy of USCG History)

A lighthouse brings new residents

Navigating the waters around the Farallon islands has always been extremely dangerous. Quick-moving currents can sweep boats onto the rocks, where the Pacific pounds them into oblivion, and during storms waves can get so big they swallow boats whole.

There are about 400 ship and airplane wrecks in the Greater Farallones sanctuary. (Airplanes flying low to get under the fog would run into the islands’ rocky peaks.)

In hopes of warding off disaster, a lighthouse was built at the top of Southeast Farallon Island in 1855. It was one of the first lighthouses built on the West Coast. Four lighthouse keepers and their families lived simultaneously on the island to keep the light in operation. They lived in two Victorian duplexes that are still standing today.

Charles Nordhoff wrote about their lives in an 1874 edition of Harper’s Magazine:

The life of the keepers on the Farallon Light is singularly lonely and monotonous … they live in what would seem to a landman like a perpetual storm. The ocean roars in their ears day and night; the boom of the surf is their constant and only music, the wild scream of the sea birds and the howl of the sea lions, the whistle and shriek of the gale, the dull threatening thunder of the vast breakers, are the dreary and desolate sounds which lull them to sleep at night, and assail their ears when they wake.

Life seemed to have improved somewhat by 1932 when Mildred Hoover wrote about the lives of the island’s few residents. She wrote that radio reception on the islands was good, so keepers and their families spent their evenings dancing.

A black and white 1929 photograph of the Southeast Farallon from the sky. You can see three dwellings, a lighthouse, and several auxiliary buildings.
A 1929 photograph of Southeast Farallon Island from the sky. You can see three dwellings, a lighthouse, and several auxiliary buildings. (Courtesy US Coast Guard)

With the lighthouse keepers came another longtime resident: a mule named Jack. He was used to carry fuel and supplies to and from the lighthouse, which was perched at the top of a dangerous climb. Though most lighthouse keepers stayed on the island for one or two years, Jack called that rock in the middle of the Pacific home for 18 years.

In the 1970s, the Coast Guard automated the lighthouse, and the keepers moved off the island.

Scientific and military presence on the island

In the early 1900s, the Navy began operating a radio direction finder station on Southeast Farallon Island, which could be used to locate enemy broadcasters. They constructed dormitories, a power house, two compass houses and several work sheds. Staffing of the station fluctuated, but one report says the total population on the island may have been as high as 70 at some points.

The Weather Bureau also built a weather station on the island around 1902. Weather data collected on the Farallons was helpful in predicting what mainland residents could expect.

A sanctuary and laboratory

Today, the Farallon Islands all are part of a National Wildlife Refuge, and the waters surrounding them make up the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The island is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1971, they entered into an agreement with Point Blue Conservation Science to jointly protect, monitor, conduct research, and manage the islands. The public isn’t allowed on them, but you can take a boat tour through the waters around them — like our colleague Izzy Bloom did for a recent story.

Oceanic Society naturalist Peter Winch (left) points as visitors aboard the Salty Lady view the Farallon Islands. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

Biologists with Point Blue live in the two Victorian duplexes where lighthouse keepers once stayed. They’ve been conducting many long-term studies on the wild seabirds, seals, whales and sharks that thrive on the islands and in nearby waters. In 2009, KQED’s Quest produced this video about the islands and the research being done there.

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