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Ecosystem Insights from Long-term Study

PRBO Staff

An aerial view of Southeast Farallon shows the rugged shoreline, broad marine terrace and former light-keeper buildings, one of which houses PRBO biologists today. Scientists land in a narrow cove (at lower right in photo) and are lifted 20 feet to the shore by a crane. Seen beyond the 350-foot summit of Lighthouse Hill, Point Reyes is 20 miles to the north. The island, one mile long, is the largest of the South Farallones, often visible from the San Francisco Bay area.
Welcome to Southeast Farallon Island, where the calls of 20,000 Western Gulls and 200,000 Common Murres compete with the crash of ocean swells and the howl of northwesterly winds. Every square meter of weathered granite and guano-rich soil is occupied by a seabird, seal or sea lion. Ocean travelers passing nearby include albatross, white sharks, orca and humpback whales.

This largest island in the Farallon archipelago literally pulses with life: guillemots and oystercatchers pierce the din with their cries, auklets and cormorants bring loads of squid and anchovy back to their nests; vagrant landbirds of every color and origin drop in during migration; humongous elephant seals snort or trumpet from where they rest ashore.
Some Farallon species are less impressed by your presence than others. Northern elephant seals, such as the juvenile above left, all but ignore discreet human activity. Western Gulls (above right) are highly aggressive during breeding season. Biologists (often in guano-stained jackets) strictly limit the areas they access on the island refuge. PRBO photos

A concentration of marine wildlife unmatched in the lower 48 states occurs just 27 miles outside the Golden Gate. The islands, protected from human disturbance, are a "natural laboratory" for understanding environmental change—and the site of critically important ecological research by PRBO Conservation Science.

Hundreds of people have assisted in field work over the years, furnished the necessary boat transportation (PRBO's Farallon Patrol skippers), and provided the ongoing financial support that makes this work possible. To mark the 40th anniversary of PRBO's Farallon Research Program, this special Observer spotlights some of the islands' extraordinary aspects.