As you get closer to the Farallones, the faraway islands become bigger and larger until they suddenly loom in front of you. The screams of western gulls may be heard above the waves.
Pelicans and cormorants flock to Sugarloaf, the towering gray-brown mountain ahead. You can smell and hear the sea lions before you see them, brown bodies heaped onto the lower rocks, as you approach the cove.
The odor is an indication of plenty of food and a healthy marine environment; it’s the life energy of the area you’re smelling.
More evidence of a thriving marine environment may be seen on the rocks in rivulets leading to the sea. The presence of white guano indicates that the birds are mostly feeding on anchovies. The color pink denotes krill.
Seabirds dominate the Farallones, particularly during mating season in the spring. The islands are home to a fifth of all California’s marine birds, making this tiny rocky protrusion the country’s biggest seabird rookery.
Under a cooperation arrangement with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the nonprofit Point Blue Conservation Science monitors the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Point Blue has had a continuous presence on the Southeast Island since 1968, according to Pete Warzybok, the Farallon program head, with scientists and volunteers living and working there 365 days a year.
With a total land area of 0.16 miles, the South, Middle, and North Farallon Islands are spread out across five miles of water.
Humans are only found on the Southeast Island. Warzybok, more than anybody else, has spent the most time on the Farallones. He’s been there for more than six years if you add up all the days.
Although the Farallon Islands are legally part of San Francisco, they are closed to the public as a protected wildlife sanctuary.
Only a few volunteers and scientists are allowed to step foot on the Southeast Island’s salty, stinky gray rocks, and the tiny team is greatly outnumbered by hundreds of thousands of birds.
Ornithologists discovered that local white-crowned sparrows were singing more complex, higher-bandwidth songs during those early months when the amount of human activity in the Bay Area was reduced.
Birdsong can travel greater distances in the absence of human noise pollution, which the sparrows take advantage of by singing a broader range of high and low notes to convey warnings and wow prospective mates.
Some experts dubbed the period when governments shut down travel and companies in reaction to the epidemic — an anthropause. While the break offered a less filtered perspective of the natural world for a short time, the implications of stopping human activity were more complicated than they seemed at first.
Tourism money supports sanctuaries and wildlife rehabilitation facilities all around the globe. Poaching protection is required for endangered species. In addition, sensitive habitat restoration and refuge management (such as on the Farallones) require ongoing monitoring and maintenance.
As the lockdown was lifted, traffic gradually resumed. As neighbors hesitantly stepped from their houses, the sidewalks became crowded.
Meanwhile, the bigger global issue remains: finding a sustainable balance between people and the natural environment in order to guarantee our planet’s existence.
Similarly, we must ask ourselves whether we have the political will, empathy, and sense of community purpose to act together, with purpose and effect change.