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California's 'Galapagos' could see visitors

The Farallon Islands off San Francisco have been compared to the Galapagos because of their rich wildlife, and now the Fish and Wildlife Service is exploring whether a bit more public access should be granted.
Elephant seals howl as they rest in a sandy cove at the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge off San Francisco, an archipelago of islands called California's "Galapagos."Eric Risberg / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Less than 30 miles from San Francisco, an archipelago of rocky islands rises out of the Pacific Ocean, forming a largely undisturbed wildlife haven that biologists call California’s Galapagos.

The public isn’t allowed onto the granite islands that make up the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge — the country’s largest seabird breeding colony outside Alaska and Hawaii.

But on a rare visit organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, several journalists saw an ecosystem teeming with life: densely packed colonies of black-and-white murres nesting on steep rocky slopes and Western gulls squawking constantly while defending their brown spotted eggs. A herd of elephant seals lounging in a sandy cove, just out of reach of the great white sharks circling nearby. And passing by in the chilly ocean swells, a gray whale, spouting water high into the air.

“You don’t have to go to the Galapagos to see amazing biological diversity and thousands and thousands of animals,” said Russ Bradley, a Point Reyes Bird Observatory researcher who monitors seabird breeding on the islands. “It’s right on San Francisco’s doorstep.”

Only a handful of bird researchers and maintenance workers are permitted to set foot on the 211-acre archipelago at any given time, although that could change.

15-year plan in works
Starting next week, the Fish and Wildlife Service will begin seeking public comment on a 15-year conservation plan that will address public access, among other issues. The agency is considering allowing small groups of naturalists to visit, but probably not tourists.

“We’re looking for creative ways to increase the public experience of the refuge without necessarily having them step foot on the islands,” said refuge manager Joelle Buffa.

Earlier this year, two congressmen proposed a bill to allow supervised access to the Farallones by amateur ham radio operators, who compete in broadcasting to and from remote locations.

The idea raised fierce opposition from biologists. The measure, sponsored by House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo of California and Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, now appears all but dead.

“Public access would have caused disturbances that could have exposed seabird eggs and nestlings to predatory birds and potentially harmed their success at producing their young,” said Glenn Olson, executive director of California Audubon Society.

30 percent of state's seabirds
The restrictions have allowed wildlife to flourish in a predator-free environment at the edge of the continental shelf, where ocean upwellings provide an abundant food source for fish, birds, whales and marine mammals.

Once devastated by hunting and a long military presence, wildlife has rebounded on the Farallones. The four main islands and dozens of craggy outcroppings are home to five species of marine mammals and 12 species of seabirds, totaling 300,000 or 30 percent of California’s breeding seabirds.

The islands, which can be seen from San Francisco on clear days, aren’t exactly conducive to visitors. Because of stormy seas and steep dropoffs into the ocean, there are no docks. After a rocky 2½-hour boat ride from San Francisco, authorized visitors must approach the main island in a small raft, then get hoisted onto the island by a 30-foot crane.

Visitors are greeted by a deafening chorus of shrieking gulls — so loud that some researchers wear earplugs. A hike to the solar-powered lighthouse on the 350-foot peak of Southeast Farallon Island offers stunning views of the archipelago.

While the Farallones are too close to shore to be as biologically unique as Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, scientists here worry that opening the refuge to tourists could disturb skittish nesting birds and the endangered Steller sea lions. In fact, nearly every nook is occupied by animals or nests holding eggs, which can be easily crushed by a visitor’s misstep.

Seals, eggs were hunted there
Before President Theodore Roosevelt established the refuge in 1909, sealers wiped out 50,000 resident northern fur seals in the early 19th century. The common murre population plummeted during the Gold Rush, when “eggers” collected seabird eggs to sell in San Francisco. And during the 20th century, the military had as many as 70 people living there.

In 1969, access was strictly limited to a small group of researchers who live in two wooden houses that once housed Coast Guard families, and biologists say the island wildlife is healthier than it’s been in years.

“It’s slowly recovering from the impact of past actions and disturbances,” said Buffa, the refuge manager. “We’re letting nature take its course.”