Los Farallones

Dispatches from Point Blue’s field station on the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge


The final day of our Farallonathon dawned with a light northwest wind, mostly clear skies, and 30 miles of visibility. These conditions are not great, but not terrible either. Unfortunately, there were not many landbirds around. The tailwind for easier flying and clear skies for navigating allowed most birds present over the last few days to depart the previous night. With no new landbirds, we would have to rely on the ocean to provide us with the remainder of our points. The first and only bird point would come during the AM seawatch when Noah spotted 180 Sabine’s Gulls in just 5 minutes! We had been hearing reports of large numbers of Sabine’s Gulls from pelagic birding trips, but until today, we had only seen a few from the island.

The lighthouse, though, was where we would add most of our points today. During a one-hour period at mid-morning, at least 3 different sharks were spotted from the lighthouse. The first was a shark seen surfacing behind the New El Dorado III, a shark tourism boat that puts customers into a dive cage where they can see sharks materialize out of the murky waters. A few minutes later a different shark attacked an Elephant Seal off of Indian Head. This attack lasted nearly one hour, with the first shark surfacing numerous times to tear off chunks of the carcass. White shark researchers working for Stanford’s Hopkin’s Marine Lab identified this first individual as Tip Fin, a shark they have seen around the island during previous years. Once the first shark had had its fill, a second shark came up and fed on the carcass. The two shark sightings and the attack netted us 7 points within an hour.

In addition to the sharks, the observers at the lighthouse were also preoccupied with the diversity of cetaceans around the island. In addition to the 2 Gray, 5 Blue, and 35 Humpback Whales, the observers also spotted a Fin Whale, a pelagic species that is rarely spotted from the island. Fin Whales are nearly as large as Blue Whales, but they differ in being blackish above and having a taller dorsal fin. They are also unique amongst whales in having the lower jaw white on the right and black on the left. Both species can swim quite fast, and this allowed them to escape early attempts at hunting while other species became depleted. Historically, Fin Whales in the North Pacific numbered at ~45,000 individuals. After the steam engine was invented and used to power ships in the late 1800’s, whalers turned to hunting the more abundant Blue and Fin Whales. The global populations of both were decimated until the International Whaling Commission banned hunting in the mid to late 1900s. Today, it is estimated that the populations of both species off of California number only around 2000.

As fog settled over the island at noon, our chances of spotting more shark attacks, cetaceans, or seabirds came to an end. Hence, our final point for the Farallonathon was found in a tide pool. To obtain this final point, islanders ventured into Jewel Cave where they encountered two Fluffy Sculpins, three Bald Scuplins (also seen on day 5), a sea lemon, and a starfish! Unfortunately, the only invertebrates we count on Farallonathon are butterflies and dragonflies.

With 1 bird point, 1 whale point, 1 fish point, and 7 shark points, our overall total was brought up to 160 points. So how does this year compare to the previous 18 years of Farallonathons? Including this year, the average score for a Farallonathon has been 177 points, with the high set in 2001 at 240 points, and the low set in 2008 at 129 points. This year’s effort was the 13th best, or 7th worst depending on how you want to look at it. Maybe next year, we’ll time our Farallonathon with a bird wave a little better.

Anyway, the main reason to have our Farallonathons is to have fun and raise money for our research. So, if you have not already contributed and you appreciate what we are doing out here, this will be the last reminder you’ll hear from us until next year’s Fararallonathon. If you can, please consider supporting our research by pledging either a per-point amount or a flat donation for the event. To make a donation, please go to our Farallonathon website at:  And lastly, thank you very much for making our research possible.