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Located 26 miles southeast of the Golden Gate Bridge at the mouth of the bustling San Francisco Bay lies a small group of stark and windswept islands known as the Farallon Islands. Discovered by Spaniards, the islands were given the name Los Farallones, which means small, pointed isles. The name of the islands has now been Americanized to Farallon Islands. The largest and tallest of the islands is Southeast Farallon, which rises to a height of 358 feet.
These islands are home to a tiny community of research scientists who come to this lonely place to observe and study a wildlife bonanza in the cold, Pacific ocean currents that swirl around these tiny outcroppings. It was atop this island that a lighthouse called the Farallon Island Light was constructed in 1855 and became automated 1972. Biologists today use this lighthouse as a lookout to observe marine mammals and sharks, as well as the largest seabird breeding colony in the United States.
Our expedition to the Farallon’s was designed with a specific purpose: to observe the Earth’s ultimate apex predator…the Great White Shark. It was a one shot deal - a single day to travel to these remote islands and, hopefully, gain an opportunity to dive with these magnificent creatures in their own element from the relative safety of a shark cage.
The Farallons are home to an intriguing variety of wildlife. Cormorants, pelicans and other sea birds circle the skies and skim the waters for food while large populations of California Sea Lions and Elephant Seals haul out on the rocky shores and hunt in the nearby waters for fish. The twelve species of seabirds that nest on these islands amount to about 250,000 birds. Indeed, outside of Alaska, this is the largest seabird rookery in the United States. In the past, seal hunters established a camp on the island where they harvested hundreds of thousands of seals for their fur and meat. By the mid 1800s, the seal population had been reduced to the point that it was no longer profitable, and the hunters left the islands.
About this time, Northern California experienced a growth spurt due to the invasion of gold seekers. It wasn't long before men journeyed back to exploit the wildlife on the Farallons once again, this time the plan was to collect the eggs of the murre, a small seabird, and sell them as a food source. In its infancy, California had no poultry industry, which further boosted the value of murre eggs. At the time, a dozen of the eggs, which reportedly taste quite similar to chicken eggs, could fetch over a dollar. This venture proved to be so profitable that an egg company called the Pacific Egg Co. or the Farallone Egg Co. was established on the island. Shortly after, egg gatherers began combing the island for eggs during the egg-laying season, which ran from May to July. Competition for the eggs became fierce, and two men were killed in an armed conflict between rival groups, that has become known as the Egg War. Even some lighthouse keepers took part in this lucrative endeavor to supplement their meager earnings, which added to the struggle over the eggs. In 1881, the government declared sole-ownership of the island, evicted the egg company, and made egg collecting illegal. Some say the Farallon murres will never regain their pre-Gold Rush abundance, but they are still considered a major presence on the island.
Today, the Elephant Seal populations are of greatest interest as they have been absent for over a century until recently, when their numbers have been steadily increasing.
It is these animals that attract the sharks.
Each year between the months of September and November Great White Sharks, including some of the largest individuals on Earth, are known to frequent these waters hunting for the Sea Lions and Elephant Seals. It is these animals that we were in search of as we departed from a damp and quiet dock in nearby Alameda in the pre-dawn hours aboard the Patriot, a small but capable dive boat designed to travel to the islands in quick fashion.
As we made our way under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the waters of the open Pacific, we immediately began to feel the swell the captain had earlier warned us about. In a few moments, the boat was struggling to push through 8-foot seas with a long swell and high chop. For the next two hours, the ocean administered a spine-rattling endurance test and each member of the expedition team bore the bruises of this journey for days after.
Suddenly, the rocky outcropping began to emerge from the mists and clouds. First as a distant shadow, and then as a ferociously wild island, the Farallons were upon us. In the relatively protected lee of these islands, we were able to gain a quick appreciation for the wild place we had just journeyed to. The low roar of large swells crashing upon the rocky shore was constant and was accompanied by the constant barking of the sea lions and sea elephants that inhabit these islands. As we emerged tentatively from the shelter of the boat’s cabin after the bone-jarring journey, we felt the chill of the damp and misty air and adjusted our eyes to the low visibility. But, probably most noticeable of all of the sensory input was the heavy smell of sea mammal that wafted over the waters and across the boat. The ocean breeze here catches the pungent scent of sea lion and elephant seal and carries it across the water while huge slicks of animal waste wash off the rocks and into the water, creating a natural chum slick for the sharks that patrol just offshore.
It was time to dive.
With great anticipation, the cage was lowered into the murky green water and in moments, the first dive team entered the water. With hearts beating with adrenaline, we entered the cage and immediately began looking for our quarry. With visibility underwater only extending to about 20 feet, we peered intensely into the gloom hoping for a glimpse of the most maligned and misunderstood of all the ocean’s predators.
With cameras at the ready and our bodies bracing against the bars of the cage to keep from being tossed around in the swell, we waited and watched. Large jellyfish drifted by the cage, offering a slight diversion from the blank green of the murky water. Soon, however, the chill of the ocean began to encroach and it was time for the second team to enter the cage.
After donning about 50 pounds of weight, the second two man team was instructed to crawl on hands and knees over the rear deck to the cage opening. This was done for our safety since we had rolling seas and a short rear deck that was wide open with no rails for support. The last thing anybody wanted was to fall into shark infested waters with no air source and 50 pounds of weight strapped to our waist. One by one we got into position and carefully jumped into the cage. Once in, we turned with open hands, grabbed our surface-supplied air source and took kneeling positions on the bottom of the cage floor. The last thing we heard was a loud crashing sound of metal on metal as the cage door slammed shut. The second team was in place and on full alert, ready to take its turn in the tight gloomy confinements of the cage. We scanned up and down and from side to side, each of us waiting for our first encounter and hoping to grab a glimpse of this elusive creature.
Time slipped by ever so slowly and still nothing, nothing except the sound of expelled air from our regulators. At one point, we turned and looked at each other. We could both see a creeping look of disappointment on our faces. We turned back and continued to comb the waters with fixed eyes for some small indication of movement. It was now almost 20 minutes into our shift; the water was getting colder as our body heat slowly escaped from our dry suits. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, we saw movement off the right side of the cage. We glared with open eyes in amazement and all we could think was, "Holy Sh...t" a Great White! It came in close, real close, within six feet of the cage and moved as if it was in slow motion. It was hard to make out a lot of detail since the waters were very murky, but it was easily 15 feet long, with a brownish-gray looking upper body and a grayish-white under belly. Nobody can mistake its cold black eyes. We immediately signaled the surface of the encounter so they could hopefully steal a peek, but as fast as it came that's as fast as it left. We had only seconds to take two grab shots with our cameras and it was gone. We hung out for another 10 minutes hoping for another peek, but saw nothing and were eventually signaled to end the dive and surface.
Throughout the remainder of the day, we rotated teams in and out of the cage. Towards the afternoon, the fog and mist began to lift and the warmth of the sun finally began to bathe the Farallons, casting the earlier foreboding isles in a completely different light. Suddenly, color came to the site and islands were no longer quite as brooding and mysterious. Unfortunately, no more sharks were seen.
This was a one shot deal of an expedition. We had a single day to observe and capture on film one of Earth’s greatest predators. There are no guarantees in the natural world; the ocean is not a zoo, the animals are not confined and their appearances are not predictable. There is no 10 a.m. shark feeding in the wild! With enthusiasm and energy we had set off with high expectations. Throughout the day, we battled sea conditions, some of us struggled with sea sickness, and all of us endured chillingly cold water. We returned weary, physically battered and bruised but, ultimately, successful.
Only twenty-six miles of open ocean separate the bustling port city of San Francisco from the wilds of the Farallons. This area, now protected as one of the nation’s National Marine Sanctuaries, is truly separate from the civilization that lives so close across the water. As we journeyed home in the same chaotic sea that we had pushed through in the early morning hours, the boat was enveloped by an eerie, almost impenetrable fog bank. The captain was no stranger to these almost impassable fog conditions. The Patriot is well equipped with the latest electronic navigational equipment to meet the demands of operating safely and effectively in all offshore conditions. With the help of onboard radar we were able to cut through the fog while others were not so lucky. As we made our way back home we could see boats and ships all around us on the radar screen. In addition, we could hear frantic radio traffic between many lost boaters and the Coast Guard who were trapped in the fog. As we pushed through this fearsomely dense fog upon our return to the bay area, the metaphor of separation was only made starker. Indeed, the Golden Gate Bridge itself was not visible as we passed beneath it. Guided only by the haunting fog horns on either side of the bridge designed to lead mariners to safety in times of zero visibility. As the fog lifted and we glimpsed the hustle and bustle of the San Francisco waterfront, we realized that separated by ocean and fog, are two very different places. We can only hope that despite the relative close distance the Farallon Islands will remain protected, wild and free.
There are dangers.
More than 47,800 drums and other containers of low-level radioactive waste were dumped onto the ocean floor west of San Francisco between 1946 and 1970; many of these are slowly leaking into the water column in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The containers were to be dumped at three designated sites, but instead litter the sea floor in an area of at least 1,400 km2 known as the Farallon Island Radioactive Waste Dump. Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site is officially termed as a “low level” nuclear waste repository, but some reports claim that thousands of barrels containing ‘special’ wastes (i.e. high level long lived radioactive materials) may also be present. The Ocean Dumping Act banned such disposal in 1972, but Most agree that cleaning the area could make things worse. Most of the barrels are so corroded that moving them would spread more radioactive waste.
In addition, tanker traffic into and out of the San Francisco Bay area and all along the Pacific Coast is increasing by an alarming rate, which raises the chances for a future catastrophic oil spill.
Hopefully, the Farallon Islands, and the wildlife that calls this area home, including the elusive Great White Shark, will remain protected for generations to come.
What to Bring
- Dive Equipment Required
Mask, Wet suit (7mm optimum), Hood, Boots, Gloves, Weight belt (if not standard size), Spares
- Do Not Bring
Fins, BCs, Tanks, Regulators, Weights, Spear guns
- Important Items/Clothing to Bring
Sunscreen, Towel, Warm jacket, Sunglasses, Hat
- Inside the Cage: Shark Cage Diving in
Join Eco-Photo Explorers as they venture inside the cage right here in North America to dive with Blue Sharks in California, Rhode Island and New York.
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