Meet the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge!
by Ross Nichols
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge with cooperation from partners at Point Blue Conservation Science (Point Blue). The following was written by a Point Blue biologist and chronicles perspectives and experiences from working on the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.
As the Northern Elephant seal breeding season is winding down and coming to an end, the Point Blue Winter season crew enters a mode of reflection, of seals, life, and the island. Most of the locations and structures on the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, and more specifically on the South Farallon Islands, have names, many of which haven’t changed since the 1800’s, and has allowed for an incredible etymological hunt revealing some hidden history of the island. Here are ten of some of my favorite locations on the island, and a bit of the history behind them.
1. Sand Flat
This is where the magic happens. Sand Flat is currently the largest Northern Elephant seal colony on the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge where dull moments come few and far between. Sand has ironically become a bit of a rarity on Sand Flat; due to a series of strong storms throughout the last few decades washing mostly all the soft cool sand into the sea, revealing the harsh granite beneath. A common thermoregulatory strategy for Northern elephant seals is to use sand as a way to cool off on those sweltering days. Unable to go to the water for relief without leaving their pup, these animals now rely on the sparse puddles that form from rains, and the occasional ocean spray to cool them.
Sand Flat at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.
2. Drunk Uncle Islets
These islets line the northern coast of Main Top Island of the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. While the true origin of their name has been lost to time, all is left is various inconsistent stories and speculation. This is appropriate, as most of my drunk uncles’ stories are also inconsistent and full of speculation. While the name remains a mystery, its inhabitants are not. These islets are mostly home to the sunbathing California sea lion, and the occasional roosting gull. These islets are constantly hit with large wave action, preventing seabirds from breeding on them, and giving the islets their irregular and craggy appearance.
Drunk Uncle Islets at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.
This is the largest Islet within the South Farallon Islands, and with it comes a bustling amount of seabird activity. Sugarloaf’s name is derived from its tall conical shape, resembling a loaf of sugar. This stupendous piece of granite is a peak of the very tops of a larger mountain hidden under the waves. They are exposed plutons, which were formed by the super-heating of rock as the heavy oceanic plate subducted underneath the lighter continental shelf. All that remains are these peaks, which have had the external layers washed away by the harsh Farallon wind and wave. This Islet is home to the Northern Gannet, which is the only individual of its species on the entire west coast. However, not all those who wander are lost, as the Gannet shares Sugarloaf with Brown Boobies, and a Blue-Footed Booby both of which share the same family called Sulidae!
Sugarloaf at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.
4. Road to Nowhere
The Road to Nowhere is one of my favorite named Refuge locations. A vestigial path that once led to a Radio Compass House built during World War II. This tower structure had the capability to contact nearby vessels, who could then determine compass bearing to the radio compass house relative to their position at sea. An incredible resource for a lowly boat on a dark fogged out sea, as we so often have around the islands. The structure was later demolished, with only the concrete slab erupting through the Marine Terrace marks what once was there. Today, salamander surveys are conducted just parallel to the path in which we check under strategically placed wooden boards and recording abundance of the cryptic Farallon arboreal salamander.
Road to Nowhere at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.
5. Last Resort
Last Resort, a name that implies a sense of desperation and poor planning. This area is a rocky outcrop adjacent to the Sand Flat colony, where Northern Elephant seals would use as a breeding site if the luxurious sandy locations were claimed by a more punctual pinniped. Last Resort in recent years has become a survey spot for younger males to scan the Sand Flat colony without fear of forceful expulsion by the alpha, allowing the young male to be patient and bide his time. It also inhabits the occasional exploratory weaner, delivering a spacious locale where a weaner can really let loose and sleep uninterrupted of colony happenings and drama. Truly, Last Resort has become a weaner resort that lasts.
Last Resort at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.
6. Queen's Bath
Queen’s bath is among the many areas on the Refuge whose name origins were hidden in time; much in its nature as the tides reveal and conceal this bath, so has its name’s origin. On the opposite side of the island, Emperor’s bath resides; a tide pool that contains California sea lions, looking for a good place to cool off. Queen’s bath has many Harbor Seals and California sea lions lounging around, and within it, looking for a good place to relax and feel the ocean spray. Harbor seals are seen resting while submerged in this pool, and I can only envy their ability to do so. Harbor seals have an incredible ability to fine control their buoyancy, paired with a breath hold that lasts up to 30 minutes, these animals have no problem having a nice nap in Queen’s Bath.
Queen's Bath at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.
7. Blowhole Peninsula
Blowhole Peninsula resides on the Eastern side of Southeast Farallon Island directly across from our Eastern Boat Landing. Given the right swell height and direction hitting the peninsula, an opening in the rock creates a splash resembling a whale’s spout! The incoming wave travels through a small trough, and given a good amount of force, the spray is projected straight up through the opening giving off a beautiful presentation of ocean mist.
Blowhole Peninsula at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.
8. Spooky Cave
One of the more recently named areas of the Island; Matt Brady, a former Point Blue intern, named Spooky cave in 2006. As more research is being done on the Camel Cricket, a species endemic to the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, this cave is seeing more scientist activity. Camel Crickets are most active at night, allowing scientists to do nighttime surveys of this cave, where each cricket is counted and classified by sex, and age class. These pitch black night surveys have truly accentuated its intriguing, but spooky nature.
Spooky Cave at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.
9. Rabbit Cave Catacombs
It wasn’t until after 1857 that rabbits became a prevailing invasive species on the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, and remained a dominant force on the islands ecosystem for years. These rock structures, as well as the Cave adjacent to the catacombs were perfect areas for rabbits to take shelter in, and were adorned with this vestigial name. The actual rock structure was named for its beautifully interlacing tunnels and small crevices similar to a series of catacombs. The actual rock formation was developed through plutonic origins, involving intense pressure in the magma of the mantle creating weak areas called dikes and sills. Once exposed, these weak areas erode faster than the surrounding granite creating the structures we see today. Now, these catacombs are used primarily as Cassins Auklet burrows, but are home to Rhinoceros Auklets, Ashy Storm Petrels and the occasional Burrowing owl who take up residence as well.
Rabbit Cave Catacombs at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.
10. Saddle Rock
An islet off the southern shore of Southeast Farallon Island, named for its saddle like shape. It’s previous, and original well-known name was “Seal Rock”. Before the hunting of Northern Fur Seals, this island had been brimming with them and of other various species of pinniped as well. Now, pinnipeds are virtually absent from this gorgeous structure, and because of this, has had its name recently repurposed to a more geologically descriptive name. We hope this rock will once again dawn the presence of the Northern Fur Seal in the future, and as their territory is expanding ever more southerly, it may once again be a seal rock of the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.
Saddle Rock at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge.
Written by 2015-16 Point Blue Winter Research Assistant, Ross Nichols.
Edited by Farallon National Wildlife Refuge Assistant Manager, Jonathan Shore.
Courtesy of Point Blue Conservation Science, Los Farallones Blog, http://losfarallones.blogspot.com/
Farallon National Wildlife Refuge website, http://www.fws.gov/refuge/farallon
San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoBayNWRComplex
Point Blue Conservation Science website, http://www.pointblue.org/