The Faraway Farallons
July 3, 2016
A giant gaping mouth with crowded splayed teeth exploded through the water’s surface, fatally seizing a sea lion in its mighty jaws. What drama! What cruel beauty! Frightening! Fascinating!
It was shark week on the Discovery Channel. The narrator explained that the great white shark on the TV screen was hunting the seas near the Farallon Islands of California. The sharks come every fall following the seasonal increase of the seal population. The largest great white sharks in the world can be found patrolling the cold water’s surrounding these rocky volcanic outcroppings, 30 miles west of San Francisco in the open ocean. Only the biggest of all the whites come there since they are the ones who can take down the enormous elephant seals who frequent these remote islands.
“Let’s go!” I say to Chris.
We’d been looking for a special place to visit over 4th of July weekend. It was only a few days away but, surprisingly, tickets were still available for the whale watching trip to the Farallons on Sunday. Even though the sharks wouldn’t be there in July, I was sure it would be an exciting trip.
Today the Farallons are a national wilderness area, home to hundreds of thousands of sea birds (about 250,000) and many pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), with migrating whales and sharks close by. The only people allowed to land there are the scientists who study the wildlife. Prior to it’s protection, the islands had been a base for hunting fur seals and otters, eventually extirpating them from the area. In the mid-19th century, sea bird eggs were harvested to feed the growing population of San Francisco with as many as 500,000 eggs taken monthly. In 1909, Theodore Roosevelt began the process of protecting the islands from predation by humans.
The native people called these the “Islands of the Dead” and stayed away from them. The islands are also home to many ship wrecks. Treacherous rocks emerging from the ocean floor in rough seas, with foggy weather, create a recipe for disaster. Like crossing the English Channel, swimming from the Farallons to San Francisco has become an extreme sport. Only three people have successfully completed the long-distance swim.
We met the whale watching crew and other passengers at 7:30 AM at Pier 39 for our 8 AM departure. Only a few of the many shops and restaurants were open; the pier had the tacky look of all seaside tourist traps. The morning was overcast and chilly, the thick clouds dipping low enough to become fog in places. A typical San Francisco summer day.
The white board at the whale watch check-in booth said that 100+ humpbacks had been spotted the previous day. Plus two blue whales, the largest creatures to ever inhabit the earth. A circuitous walk along docks and boardwalks brought us to the 65-foot catamaran Kitty Kat, our home for the next 6 hours. Leaving San Francisco, we passed close to Alcatraz and Angel Islands and then sailed under the fog enshrouded, nearly invisible, Golden Gate Bridge.
The sky over the open ocean was even darker, the water and air turning the color of pewter and steel. Birds, mostly gulls and common murres, flew in confusing patterns above and into the swells. The wind picked up and we entered a messy, tall chop, causing the boat to bounce chaotically.
Soon, with the Golden Gate bridge still close by, spouting humpback whale were spotted. I saw a black harbor dolphin leap out of the waves. The captain cut the motor and people rushed to the bow railings to see whale spray and an arching back or a tail dive. The boat lurched randomly, violently. The wet floor added to the insecure footing. I had my good camera and large telephoto lens and I moved cautiously.
The nature guide gave advice for seasickness: keep your eyes on the horizon, don’t go in the cabin, take medication. But people retreated indoors anyway, to escape the wind, cold and frigid ocean spray leaping over the railings. They paid a price. Chris and I were pretty well prepared for cold wet weather but others wore fewer warm layers. Fleece blankets were distributed and Chris and I huddle together underneath. It created some warmth and a barrier between the regular showers of ocean water and my camera.
We continued toward the Farallons, stopping regularly at whale sightings. The seas got rougher and the captain made oblique comments, hinting that we might have to turn back. We had been traveling for a long time but seemingly not making any headway. The shoreline looked as close as ever.
Whales were spotted frequently in the distance but were not close to the boat. Eager tourists, many from other countries, rush to the railings at each new sighting. I usually didn’t bother. I hate fighting the crowds for a spot and I have been spoiled from previous whale watching trips where whales appear nearby. I have even seen whales closer from the beaches of Santa Cruz.
I began feeling a bit woozy. Vague nausea, but not too bad. But others were beginning to succumb to the relentless rocking and rolling. People were throwing up over the side. A woman had her head in a waste basket. A crew member washed vomit from the deck.
I have been on the ocean many times and although I have had nausea before, I had never actually gotten sick. I was wearing acupressure wrist bands but had declined to take medication because it makes me so drowsy.
At one stop, the boat’s movement was such that it immediately aggravated my growing queasiness. Most people had gathered at the bow for a blue whale sighting while I sat in the back monitoring my ability to hold down my breakfast. I lost the fight and for the first time in my life, I threw up overboard. I was not alone.
Vomiting was bad enough but the force of involuntarily expelling my stomach contents also caused me to release some of my full bladder into my pants. (I had refused to go in the tiny, smelly head.) Fortunately, most people were too preoccupied with either whales or their own seasickness to notice the large wet spot between my legs. Many people already had soaked clothing due to the wild ocean spray; maybe it looked like I had sat down in a puddle.
Meanwhile, Chris walked about the boat looking for whale spouts and periodically retrieving items from our packs stored in the cabin (which I declined to go in). He regretted missing my momentous barf and said that everyone on board looked ill. I estimated that 30% of the people had gotten sick, he thought it might be as high as 50%.
Over the loudspeaker, the captain exclaimed optimistically, “This is great! I hope everyone is enjoying themselves!” I looked around to see expressions of distress, boredom, malaise and weariness.
A Dutch family across from us sat dejectedly, the teenaged son completely collapsed in misery, periodically hanging his head in his hands or puking over the railing for relief. The older teenaged daughter stared out to sea, without expression, without moving, appearing to hate every minute of this adventure. The mother bent over them offering comfort. Only the father, who had disappeared to the front of the boat, seemed to find any pleasure in the trip.
There were many moments when I decided this trip was just too unpleasant, too uncomfortable to bear anymore and I’d be happy to turn around and return home NOW. But the faraway Farallons still called to me and the captain seemed determined to get there. After retching and taking motion sickness tablets, I felt a bit better and became more eager to reach our intended destination.
My big camera and lens were inhibiting me. I hesitated moving around much for fear my camera might get drenched by flying sea water or I might slip and smash it against the boat. Chris put the Canon camera away in the cabin and I was free to depend on my smaller, lighter, more expendable Panasonic Lumix.
At long last, the remote stark Farallons came into view. Rugged volcanic outcroppings, rising sharply from a fault in the sea. A few buildings dotted the landscape but they were now mostly left to the wildlife.
These islands are the largest rookeries for sea birds in the contiguous U.S. The air and sea surface was aflutter with birds, mostly common murre, but also cormorants, gulls and one very colorful tufted puffin, who quickly disappeared below water before I could raise my camera.
Covering the hillsides we could see salt and pepper spots everywhere. With astonishment, we realized that these spots were actually birds, thousands of birds, hundreds of thousands of birds, common murres. Murres are similar to penguins, but they are a penguin who can fly. Standing on the rocky slopes they reminded me of scenes from Antarctica. Little upright birds crowded together in their black and while tuxedos. A few sea lions also relaxed on the rocks.
I would have liked to have completely circumnavigated the islands but it was soon time to high tail it back to San Francisco. With the seas no longer so choppy and the wind at our backs, the return trip was smoother. Whale spouts, tails and arching backs were occasionally seen but there was no more stopping. The somnolent effect of sea-sickness medicine was evident everywhere. Many people were slumped over, unconscious for the last leg of the journey.
The Golden Gate Bridge came into view. The fog had partially lifted revealing the deep red stanchions. Blue sky could be seen above the inner bay. Sail boats floated by gracefully. Here was a different world from the wild islands and impenetrable foreboding skies we had just come from. Many passengers, I am sure, were relieved to finally reach terra firma again. The pier was now sunny and packed with holiday tourists.
During the 2-hour drive home, I passed out from the medication. I am not usually a car sleeper, but I could not stay awake. Chris listened to an audio recording of Hemingway’s, The Sun Also Rises to accompany him home. Scenes of handsome matadors, drunken socializing in Spanish cafes and misplaced romantic affections littered my drugged consciousness.
Although there were times I was sure I would never go back to the Farallons, by the following day and after a good nights sleep, I fantasized about my next trip.
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