Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, “California’s Galapagos”

by Debi Love Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys, Inc.

Sugarloaf dusted with guano, Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. Copyright, Debi Shearwater.

Sugarloaf island dusted with guano, Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. © Debi Shearwater.

They have been called California’s Galapagos. Dense colonies of Common Murres and colorful Tufted Puffins cloak the crags and cliff faces. Two-ton Northern Elephant Seals fight fierce battles for breeding sites on narrow wave-etched terraces below. Welcome to the Farallon Islands! Thirteen species of seabirds numbering over 300,000 individuals nest here each summer. And the cheeky Tufted Puffin is the star of the show. Throughout the year, six species of marine mammals breed or haul out on the islands.

Northern Gannet and Tufted Puffin at Sugarloaf, Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. Copyright, Debi Shearwater

Northern Gannet and Tufted Puffin at Sugarloaf, Farallon National Wildlife Refuge. © Debi Shearwater


Farallones Islands, US Geological Society.

Farallon Islands, US Geological Society.


The Farallon Islands lie 28 miles west of San Francisco Bay, on the western edge of the continental shelf. Here, the ocean plunges to 6,000-foot depths! These islands are close to the productive California Coastal Current, which originates in Alaska and flows north to south. Cold, nutrient-rich water brought from these depths by upwelling feeds the food chain. The areas surrounding the islands are extremely rich in marine life. Most, but not all, trips depart from Sausalito, north of San Francisco. If you book such a trip, you’ll sail under the iconic Golden Gate Bridge for a unique view!


The best time to see Tufted Puffins and the other breeding seabirds is August. By September, most of the breeding seabirds have departed for offshore feeding areas. Mid- to late October is the best time to see Great White Sharks, which are known to feed on young Northern Elephant Seals around the islands. Strong winds and rough seas make for a very rough ride in winter and spring. Note that landing on the islands is never permitted.


Breeding seabirds include: Leach’s, Ashy, and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels; Double-crested, Brandt’s, and Pelagic Cormorants; Black Oystercatcher; Western Gull; Common Murre; Pigeon Guillemot; Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets; and Tufted Puffin. There is nothing like the sight and sound of thousands of seabirds coming and going to their nesting cliffs. In 2011, a Northern Gannet was a stunning sighing at the islands! This is the only known Northern Gannet in the Pacific Ocean; that must be one lost bird.

Also, in recent years, both Brown and Blue-footed Boobies have been observed at the islands, mostly sitting on the rock wall called Sugarloaf. If the weather permits, most trips will venture out to the edge of the Continental Shelf, which is a mere five miles from the islands. Here, Black-footed Albatross, a variety of shearwaters, Sabine’s Gull, and jaegers can be found on August trips.

Gallery: Pelagic Seabirding Farallon Islands, California (Click to open)


Six species of marine mammals breed or haul out at the islands: Northern and Guadalupe Fur Seals; Steller’s and California Sea Lions; Harbor Seal and Northern Elephant Seal. Cetaceans often encountered include: Blue, Humpback, and Minke Whales; Killer Whales; Risso’s, Northern Right Whale, and Pacific White-sided Dolphins; and Harbor and Dall’s Porpoises.


Since 1987 Great White Sharks have been studied and monitored at the Farallon Islands. Satellite tagging programs have shown that these sharks undertake a long, winter migration–up to 4000 kilometers to the waters off Hawaii. The sharks remain around the islands during fall. October is the best month to see Great White Sharks.


Most pelagic trips for birders operate on fixed schedules that require advance booking. The operator will typically send an information sheet as to how to dress and what to bring. In a normal season, temperatures can be quite cool offshore. A warm jacket and lunch are essential. It is always best to study the seabirds and marine mammals prior to the trip. Check the operator’s website for past trip reports to get an idea of species recorded.

It is always best to join a dedicated pelagic trip provided by a birding company. And look for a good ratio of leaders to guests because that provides the highest quality experience. Here at the Farallon Islands, birding trips in August and Great White Shark trips in October sell out months in advance. Early booking is essential.


About the Author:

Debi Shearwater, owner of Shearwater Journeys, Inc., has operated west coast pelagic trips for more than forty years and is a leading expert in global seabirding.

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