The Devil's Teeth

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Oct 12, 2011 | By Andy


There are a few places in the world where you don't want to fall off of a boat: Amity Island (c~ 1975), Shark Alley in South Africa, and anywhere near the Farallon Islands. Despite lying 27 miles due West of the Golden Gate, the Farallon Islands are within the boundaries of the City of San Francisco, and can be seen from the shore on a clear day. But clear days are few and far between, and despite occupying 211 acres of precious San Francisco real estate, the archipelago of 10 islets has no permanent inhabitants. !! And for good reason. While Pacific Island may conjure thoughts of mai tais and hula dancers, the Farallons are about as inhospitable as it gets: the rocks are sharp as knives, the fog dense as lead, the wind salty and maniacal, and the water black and percolating with plumes of blood from the macabre violence beneath. Welcome to The Devil's Teeth. !! Long known by the indigenous tribes of the Pacific, the first landing on the Farallons wasn't notched until 1579, when the English explorer Sir Francis Drake made a pit stop to collect seal meat and bird eggs for his crew. However, the islands saw little activity until the 18th century, when traders and hunters realized the commercial potential of the seals and seabirds that made their rookeries on the island. !! As the population of the city of San Francisco grew, so did the demand for seal meat and eggs, and various enterprising groups made the trip to the island to supply them. From 1812 to 1840, Russian hunters maintained a sealing station on the island, where they took up to 1,500 fur seals annually. Eggs from the seabird colonies were also a hot commodity; at one point, as many as 500,000 eggs a month were collected and shipped to San Francisco. The trade was so profitable, that in 1863, a conflict (nay, a War) ensued between two rival egging companies that resulted in two murders. !! !! By the early 20th century, it became apparent that the Farallon seabird colonies were seriously threatened and seals were being hunted to extinction. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order protecting the northern islands of the chain. Still, it wasn't until the Southeast Farallon Island was designated a wildlife refuge in 1969 that the seal rookeries and seabird colonies began to recover. When they did, they found that threat was no longer above the surface, but far beneath. !! The Farallons are located 6 miles from the Continental Shelf, where the sea floor quickly drops over 2,000 feet. The rapid change in topography combined with the relentless wind creates an upwelling effect, where nutrient-rich water is driven from the depths to the surface, attracting an abundance of wildlife. The islands also lie near the center of the Red Triangle, a triangle-shaped region off the coast of Northern California that's home to one of the largest concentrations of great white sharks in the world. Around 38% of recorded great white shark attacks on humans in the U.S. have occurred within the Red Triangle, a statistic leaned on by fear-mongering sharkphobes and the folks at the Discovery Channel every August. You still have a better chance of being crushed to death by an elephant than being killed by a great white shark (read: stay away from elephants), but the threat's there, and it's real. !! While the seasonal congregation of great whites at the Farallons is unknown (it's estimated to be between 30 and 100), what is known is that the great whites that silently cruise the depths of the area are unusually large. (Aside: from 1945 to 1970, a 30-square-mile area around the Farallon Islands served as the nation's primary nuclear waste dumping ground. TMNT, anyone?) The largest female adults can reach up to 20 feet long and weigh up to 2,500 pounds, fattened by a robust diet of 5,000 pound northern elephant seals. !! The shark attacks that occur around the islands are cataclysmic and primordial, as the sharks draw upon hunting techniques honed over thousands of years (sharks predate trees - seriously) to strike their prey with the intensity of a car crash. Many of the attacks involve air breaches, where the sharks launch themselves towards their prey from below, at speeds up to 20 miles per hour. In season, surface attacks occur daily, and since 2000, marine biologists have recorded an average of 80 seal attacks a year. !! Seals aren't the only victims - the bodies of Golden Gate Bridge jumpers have even been found near the Farallons, ripped in half and replete with huge bite marks in what's left. And in a twist of fate, in 1997 a group of sightseers off the North Island caught the first glimpse of an orca kill a 10-foot great white shark and feed it to her calf. It get's weird in the 415. Today, the islands are closed to the public and are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who allow a smattering of marine biologists onto its rocky shores to conduct long-term ecological research. However, those willing to brave the 6-hour journey from Sausalito, often in 15-foot swells, can approach the islands on whale and shark watching boats. Or if you're feeling particularly brave, you could always swim.  !! For those interested in reading more (Hi Mom) about the Farallons and its inhabitants, highly recommend you check out The Devil's Teeth, or our buddy Skyler's blog. Photo credits: 2009 Farallon Islands on Flickr, Todd Hido.