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Rock and A Hard Place

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From his perch atop this barren little island’s only peak, the lookout gazes out over a world he has come to know well.

To the west, a humpback whale announces its presence with several spectacular leaps, followed by equally spectacular landings. To the east, dozens of sea lions speed off to the feeding grounds, wherever they might be.

Immediately below, a peregrine falcon is poised on a cliff, maintaining a vigil of its own, looking for breakfast in the form of a songbird or dove.

A new day is blossoming in glorious fashion, as it usually does here at “the Rock,” a nickname bestowed on this 120-acre parcel of granite by passing mariners because of its craggy landscape and location--27 miles west of San Francisco and that other rock--Alcatraz.

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But as lively as things are in one respect, they’re eerily quiet in another. The great white sharks that the lookout knows by name--Spotty, Bonnie and Blotches, among others--are in full stealth mode, refusing to show themselves.

“I know they’re there, at least five of them, swimming around this island right now,” he says. “It’s the sneakiest . . . shark I’ve ever seen. They will not swim at the surface. They always attack from below. That’s the name of the game.”

The loser, invariably, is an elephant seal or sea lion caught in the “high-risk zone,” a ring around the island 30 to 80 feet deep. This is where the sharks lurk, like phantoms, blending in with the rocky bottom, charging up only when it’s time to sink their teeth into some serious blubber.

They come like clockwork every fall to add a little girth to their wide bodies, then leave by the end of December. Where they go remains a mystery. While they’re here, they make great theater and provide researchers such as Scot Anderson, the lookout on Lighthouse Hill, an ideal opportunity for study.

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But sharks are only part of the game on Southeast Farallon Island, the largest of four small islands or island groups that make up an eight-mile-long archipelago comprising the 211-acre Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.

There are seabirds such as western gulls, Brandt’s cormorants, puffins and common murres--the islands support a whopping 29% of California’s breeding seabirds--as well as hundreds of species of wayward land birds that find their way here from time to time.

And there are pinnipeds, five species in all, that hang out on the islands’ rocky shores each season, attracting their biggest and baddest nemesis, the great white shark.

The name of the game, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge out of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in Fremont, is to allow the diverse ecosystem to come full circle after more than a century of abuse by man.

The agency is serious about this: The public is not allowed to come ashore, boaters must keep their distance and even the number of biologists or researchers is limited to about half a dozen at a time. Media requests to land are rarely granted, and permits that are granted come with a page of conditions.

The researchers are allowed only because the remote little islands--they are only occasionally visible from the hills above San Francisco--need someone to look after them.

“That’s our job, basically, to sit here and watch and see how things do and to monitor any downturns if there are any,” says Peter Pyle, 40, the supervising biologist on the island. “We’re working on it and we think the tide is turning in our favor. There’s a tremendous amount of awareness and concern right now. This wasn’t always the case, of course.”

A Storied Past

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We know now the fragility of isolated ecosystems. Early visitors, however, didn’t give it much thought.

Sir Francis Drake and his shipmates aboard the Golden Hinde surely had other things on their minds--such as replenishing food supplies with eggs and seal meat--when they landed in 1579.

Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino was no doubt interested in goods other than wildlife when he sailed past in 1603. But a friar aboard his vessel, Antonio de la Ascencion, does deserve credit for naming the islands. In his diary he wrote, “Six leagues before reaching Punta de los Reyes [Point Reyes] is a large island, two leagues from land and three leagues northwest of this are . . . seven farallones close together.”

“Farallones” in Spanish means “rocky promontories rising from the ocean,” an apt description of these islands.

Vizcaino drew the first map of the islands, which now are called North Farallon, Middle Farallon, Noonday Rock, Southeast Farallon and the much smaller islets, Saddle Rock, Arch Rock and Sugarloaf. All but Southeast Farallon are uninhabitable and impossible to land on.

The exploitation and abuse of wildlife began in the early 1800s, with the arrival of Russian and Aleutian seal hunters. So thorough were they that northern elephant seals weren’t seen here again until the late 1950s and only recently began to recolonize the islands. Northern fur seals, once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, are only now beginning to return. They started breeding again only three years ago.

With the discovery of gold in the mid-1800s came hordes of gold seekers, many by ship. To cut down on shipwrecks, the U.S. government built a lighthouse on what is now Lighthouse Hill, to provide a beacon for mariners entering the bay.

The Pacific Egg Co. set up shop on the island and raided the nests of murres, whose eggs resemble chicken eggs in size and taste. As many as 400,000 murres populated the Farallones at that time. Today only 80,000 nest here each spring.

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In 1881, the government declared itself sole owner of the Farallones and evicted the egg company. But the lighthouse workers and their families remained for the next 60 years. They raised goats and pigs and even built a small school. Life was hard, as one might imagine, being so far from medical help and under constant assault by wind and salt air.

The Navy came for a short stint, followed by the Coast Guard. In 1942 there were 78 people crowded on the island’s only level ground, an area not much larger than a football field.

The population declined steadily after World War II, however. The lighthouse was automated by the late 1950s and by 1960 the last families had been removed.

Noonday Rock, North Farallon and Middle Farallon were already part of Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1909 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The first biologists arrived on Southeast Farallon in 1967 and two years later it also attained refuge status.

And little by little, the refuge is becoming wild again.

“It’s getting there,” Pyle says. “We’ve eliminated a lot of the direct threats like oil spills, and gill-netting--that took a big toll on the birds [and sharks]. The nets are now banned within 12 miles of the refuge.

“But there’s still a long way to go. . . . There used to be several thousand puffins and 3,000 double-crested cormorants. Now there’s only like 50 puffins and 200-300 cormorants.”

There were other factors for the declines in bird populations. The collapse of the sardine fishery in the 1940s, which eliminated a chief food source, was a particularly significant blow. But the sardines are coming back strongly now so, like the bird specialists that are always on the island, things are looking up.

Life on the Rock

The researchers reside in two large homes built in 1879 for the lighthouse workers. A third such structure serves as a machine shop. Electricity comes from solar-power generators. Water is pumped in monthly by the Coast Guard.

The researchers have a television and even a washing machine, along with computers to log and process data and monitor weather conditions. Volunteers--mostly students screened by the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, which runs the program to ensure someone is always on the island--usually stay for six-week periods.

Bird lovers are in heaven here. Among the avian tourists are warblers, tanagers, thrashers and shrikes. Many belong on the East Coast or across the ocean in Asia, but they take wrong turns somewhere along their migration route and somehow find this little outpost.

But nothing turns heads quite like the great white, all the researchers say. That is, when it decides it’s time to attack.

“Basically, it’s a bigger splash than anyone else,” Anderson says, still enjoying a panoramic view at 327 feet atop Lighthouse Hill. “Then it turns red and all the gulls flock to the scene for scraps. You can’t miss it.”

Be a Square

Anderson, 40, came here for the first time years ago as a volunteer bird-bander and quickly shifted his attention to sharks. He has published papers on their behavior and is genuinely excited about his work.

But he doesn’t share the same enthusiasm some have about the birds and the mess they create. “When it rains everything gets all wet and slimy and you can break your neck just walking around,” he said, “and then it smells like ammonia, strong ammonia. . . .

“This place can actually be very depressing. I remember seeing a sea lion that had its rear end bitten off clean. It had no flippers. The thing was still alive and crawling around and it would lay down and this gull would come and just pick at it. It would move and the gull would follow, and this went on for weeks until I left. . . . And you just wish there was somebody to put it out of its misery.”

The good thing about most of the shark attacks, he adds, is that “usually the seal is dead when we get there--stone-cold dead. And at that point I don’t care.”

Anderson and Pyle do most of the shark research. After an attack, they run to the launch--a beat-up 17-foot Boston Whaler with a small outboard--and race to the scene with their cameras. They videotape and photograph the sharks at and below the surface in hopes of cataloging them so they might someday be matched with photos taken by others in other parts of the world in an attempt to learn more about migration patterns.

They’ve cataloged dozens of individual sharks, some of which have been coming for more than 10 years. Anderson believes that 40 or more visit the Farallones during the course of a season.

Researchers have tagged and tracked them for short periods to study their behavior around the islands. The sharks “continually just swim around,” Anderson says. “But they definitely like the points and reefs because of their rocky bottoms [which provides camouflage]. We never see them in the [sandy] bays.”

The older and wiser elephant seals might realize this and follow the sandy areas to shore, or they might come in at night. The younger mammals are usually the ones that are hit.

The sea lions are not as solitary as the seals and seem to be more aware of the presence of sharks. They usually pass through the high-risk zone together, and quickly, and thus do not fall victim to attack as often.

Some of this information might be of interest to surfers, who are attacked periodically off the Central and Northern California coast, usually off rocky points.

Anderson and Pyle are convinced that the less one looks like a seal, the less chance one has of being attacked. They determined this by trolling various decoys through the high-risk zone.

One is square-shaped, another is oval-shaped, like a sunfish, another is an actual surfboard and yet another is a surfboard with a dummy surfer named Buoyhead Bob. To sharks looking up at the passing silhouettes, the surfer, with its limbs perhaps resembling flippers, apparently looks most like a seal.

“The square never gets bitten, but it’s investigated as often as the others,” Anderson says. “The mola-mola [sunfish] has been bitten once and investigated the rest of the time. The surfboard has been attacked 40% of the time and Buoyhead Bob, on a surfboard in a black wetsuit, 50% of the time.

“So basically, people [on surfboards] are mimicking seals or sea lions to the point where the shark is convinced it’s food. . . . These sharks can discriminate between shape and they’re a very selective predator, and people are putting themselves in a position that’s very dangerous.

“In other words, if you knew there was one around and you acted like a square, it’d circle you but it wouldn’t bite you,” Anderson continued, interjecting a little humor. “So squares have a better chance out there [in the lineup].”


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