Find Expeditions Start an Expedition About Open Explorer

Unsettled Waters: Golden Gate MPA Watch

November 3 2017

Lurking in the mists and fog, just thirty miles from San Francisco, lie the Farallon Islands. Called the Devil's Teeth by wary mariners and theIslands of the Dead by native Americans, these jagged spires and barren rocks are a Fish and Wildlife Refuge, and nested within the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. These enigmatic islands are critical habitat for 350,000 nesting seabirds, 6 species of seals and sea lions, amazing fish including great white sharks! The Farallon Islands are also part of our California Marine Protected Area network.

Lesser known are our coastal Marin Protected Areas in the Golden Gate region including Point Reyes, Duxbury Reef, Drakes Estero and several special closures. The MPA Watch program is part of the collaborative effort to monitor MPAs for human activity and habitat, and educate the public on marine protection. We are using the Trident to examine habitat and species offshore, but also nearshore in eelgrass beds in the San Francisco Bay and Drakes Estero.

This program provides monitoring opportunities, education and adventure. Located so close to our coastline, the island wildlife and habitat have been impacted from overfishing, sealing and pollution historically and remain at risk from oil spills and shipping. As part of the ecosystem managed of 124 MPAs, our marine wildlife and habitat have an opportunity to recover.

Solutions include event protection as part of our State network of marine protected areas and applying citizen science observations collecting data on wildlife and human behavior using app technology. With the Trident ROV we are recording observations of benthic and nektonic wildlife, and human interactions within the MPAs. Every fall Shark Stewards leads public education expeditions to the islands discussing history, natural history and ocean solutions and applies citizen science to marine conservation.

Now using the Trident drones, we are collecting scientific observations for our California Marine Protected Area network that can be used by fisheries biologists and managers. Using spotter pro and iNaturalist Apps we record whale and shark observations inside the Sanctuary.

November 3 2017


Accept contributions for your expediton by providing us a few details. We will create an account on your behalf at WePay. If you haven't already registered with WePay, they will send you an email to complete your registration.

Mission Underway

Each time I visit the Farallon Islands, it is a novel experience. Each visit, I am reminded of the dynamic forces at work in the Gulf of the Farallones by the changing wildlife and conditions. Some days the islands are dark and brooding, and the jagged rocks appear sharp and menacing.Today the islands are bright and crisp, almost welcoming. The red beaked, Tufted Puffins, having a successful year of fledglings, float peacefully near the whitecapped Sugarloaf. The details of the wind and wave carved granite are sharp and the roosting pelagic cormorants spot the rocks like pepper on salt.

Pulling into Fisherman's Bay after a remarkably sunny and smooth passage across the Gulf, we are greeted by the welcoming committee of California sea lions. On this trip we have the Open ROV team aboard and the cabin is loaded with cases of equipment. The team is excited to actually be using the ROV after years of development and testing. Eric, one of the founders, brings Wonderbread and peanut butter to fuel the crew, but the excitement already charges them. The team quickly sets up a large flatscreen inside the cabin and another on deck and deploy two of the ROVS. The images are stunning with the sunlight giving color to the red anemones and purple urchins.

We move the boat to the Southeast anchorage at the edge of Shark Alley and fly along the bottom logging several species of rockfish such as the China rockfish (Sebastes nebulosus) hiding in the crevices. Our operator deftly steers the Trident down in front of a large Wolf eel (Anarrhichthys ocellatus). These big-lipped fish (they are not eels) eat crabs and urchins and it appears that a partner is hidden deeper in the niche. Suddenly Captain David points a few hundred meters east at a cloud of circling terns and gulls. Shark kill! A spreading red slick marks the end of an elephant seal or sea lion. We pull in the ROVs and relocate next to the oily red patch and put the ROV in to search for the shark. Clouds of blood mark the passage, but no corpse or shark, so it is likely the shark has dined and dashed, or decided to have take out.

Back to the bottom we see large Ling Cod (Ophiodon elongatus) and a close cousin. a beautiful yellow finned female kelp greenling (Hexagrammos decagrammus). Most of my work at the Farallones is at the surface, seeking seabirds, seals and sharks to photograph and share with students and the public. Occasionally I dive, but the ROV has opened up a whole new Farallon experience for me and for my guests. It will take hours to study the footage and catalog the species as part of the MPA collaborative project, but this trip has been an entirely new experience for me. We will be using the ROV on our next trips, and I wonder what we will experience next.

Select trips are open to the public in October. Learn more at

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

this is cool, was this this week? weather looks pretty ok!

We ran our first Farallon Island expedition with the California Ecosystems class at the University of San Francisco Saturday, September 8, under very clear skies and a building northwest wind. The 7th year we have been helping teach this class, students in the Masters of Science in Environmental Management program are conducting physical and biological sampling and observations inside Point Bonita and at SE Farallon Island.

The students and a few guests toughed out a beam sea and a bit of spray crossing the Gulf, and we arrived at the island to be greeted by the island's welcoming party: a raft of California Sea Lions (Zalophus californianus). After collecting water samples and performing a plankton tow, we deployed the Trident ROV at Fisherman's Cove.

The water is rich with plankton and shrimp, and the sea lions investigated the ROV, pirouetting in front of the camera. The bottom is dense with brown and green algae, purple and red urchins and invertebrates. In some areas the purple urchins (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) are dominant, but many areas are mixed with the larger S. franciscanus dominant and a few green urchins ( S. drobachiensis) present in mixed assemblages. One useful observation is that the urchin densities are far more balanced than is observed along the Sonoma coastline where red urchins have been harvested, purple urchins are proliferating, and the giant kelp Nerocystis is suffering from the combined effects of warm seawater temperatures and an imbalanced ecosystem. Although the surface was surgy, the ROV handled admirably and it was easy to keep the tether clear of the propeller as we maneuvered to keep our distance from the island.

We didn't see any sign of "the Landlord" although our friends with Fish and Wildlife have reported observed evidence of a few White shark predation events from the island in the last month. We will return with the OpenROV team next weekend to make more observations in our National Marine Sanctuary, and California Marine Protected Areas at SEFI.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Located just 25 miles from the coast of Los Angeles, Catalina Island feels world away. The cliffs of Catalina are brown and barren, but the ocean is bluegreen and rich. Looking down into the waters of Emerald Bay, part of the Arrow Point to Lions Head State Marine Conservation Area, my polarized glasses detect several shadows sliding over the white sand bottom below. We are at the Pennington Marine Science Center at Emerald Bay on Catalina Island diving and using the Trident ROV to look for sharks and determine how effective the ROV might be to film and recognize individual sharks through pattern and scar recognition. (Video)

Sliding the ROV into the waters of the bay, our seventeen year old intern Alice drives the underwater drone into the shadows. Minutes after dropping the ROV into the water the monitor shows several Leopard sharks (Triakus semifasciata) milling in the shallows. We pilot the ROV to the sand and watch as the sharks approach the Trident undisturbed. These shy sharks casually circle the ROV and barely move when it approaches slowly, but quickly return. We also surprise a very large shovel nose guitarfish, a type of ray.

Each year, mature leopard shark females enter the shallow warm waters to gestate. Generally found at Big Fisherman’s Cove next to the University of Southern California’s Wrigley Marine Science Center, the word is a preying sea lion have displaced the leopard sharks. Fortunately for us, the sharks are right where we are staying at Camp Emerald Bay. A graduate student of Dr. Chris Lowe of the CSU Long Beach Shark Lab is studying the movements of these sharks along temperature gradients. We are able to film at least ten separate sharks, and hope that a new algorithm being developed will be useful in identifying individuals.

A few days later we enter the kelp beds near the Blue Cavern SMCA, another State Marine Protected in search of other sharks. Area, Large male sheepshead fish, scores of blacksmith and kelp bass swim among the fronds. The Pennington Marine team have reported seeing Soupfin sharks (Galeorhinus galeus) in the kelp and we decide to dive while Alice films from above with the Trident. These lovely houndsharks bear the unfortunate name of their favored appendage for shark fin soup, but are also called School shark or Tope sharks. In the early morning light we spy the sharks sliding along the far side of the fronds: it's like peeking at deer pass behind trunks in a forest. Our bubbles make the sharks wary and unless we are at the bottom holding our breath, the sharks twend to avoid us.

Topside, Alice has captured several long clips of the sharks. The Trident, when steadied at a constant depth can hover in the light current, and pan with the onboard camera as the shark passes. The small electric current from the drone does not appear to attract the sharks like that of bigger video cameras I have used, where the electronics stimulate the shark's sensitive electro-receptor organs called the Ampullae of Lorenzini. One shark has a strand of monofilament and a hook, having escaped an anglers capture, but fearlessly passes the ROV time and again.

The experiments were fulfilling and hopeful for surveying species and habitat in the marine protected areas. We are taking the ROV north and testing the ROV in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary as part of our MPA Watch project. Follow the adventure, or join us aboard one of our education trips to the Golden Gate offshore MPAs with

image-1 image-1 image-1

For an early summer adventure I have transported our Trident to the equatorial regions of the Celebes Sea off the Island of Borneo. As a test pilot for OpenROV, I used the Trident in a Salvinia infested, Siamese crocodile inhabited Oxbow lake off the Kinabatangan River, and a Crown of Thorns invaded coral reef off the island of Pom Pom.
These tests allowed me to evaluate the use of the Trident as a sampling and survey tool, and the lessons learned will soon be applied back in the California MPAs (next week will be off Catalina Island helping the Collaborative survey giant sea bass and leopard sharks).

Please check out the antipodal adventures and follow our progress in our N. Central California MPAs this fall.

Coral Reef Restoration in Borneo

image-1 image-1 image-1

Representing the Golden Gate MPA Collaborative as co-chair, I attended the statewide MPA collaborative network workshop on Catalina Island. This network of 14 groups, mostly volunteers are composed of fisheries managers, government staff, recreational ocean goers, fishers, tribes, museums, universities NGOs and citizens from Mexico to Oregon. The purpose of the Collaborative Network (link is external) is to create a cooperative process that encourages participation in decision-making and communication, grounded in the values of respect for differences and the interconnection between humans and nature.

The two day workshop was held at the wonderful USC Wrigley Marine Lab at Two Harbors on Catalina Island. Part of the Catalina MPA Collaborative (, the lab oversees Big Fishermen Cove, one of the state’s network of 124 MPAs. Each collaborative represents a unique region and unique population with similar and also distinct challenges. In the South there is a high population density with a large recreational use including fishing. In the north, the coast is more inaccessible with a is low density and higher Tribal presence. In the middle, the Golden Gate Collaborative has remote and rugged MPAs outside a major population center in waters that are often unfriendly.

The meeting, lead by Collaborative Network Chair Calla Allison was a useful sharing of strategy on our challenges and successes, and on the science of MPAs and science communication. Following long conversations, Calla lead many of us into the waters of Big Fishermen Cove snorkeling or swimming.

California Academy of Sciences researcher and educator Rebecca Johnson (and San Mateo MPA Co-Chair) demonstrated the citizen science program ( on iNaturalist in the tidepools. I also demonstrated the Open Explorer Trident ROV donated to Shark Stewards. We have been using the drone to monitor eelgrass habitat inside the San Francisco Bay (favorite hound shark and ray foraging habitat), and in our offshore MPAs. Waving goodbye, I was able to stay a few more days to dive the island. I learned to SCUBA over 40 years ago and am excited to dive the relatively calm and clear waters of So Cal. Decades ago abalone and lobster abounded and we used to see many blue sharks in the channel. Of course our state fish the Garibaldi abounded, but I was really happy to see abalone, many spiny lobsters and large Sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher)- especially the resplendent tricolored snaggle-toothed males. These fish are anadromous hermaphrodites - born as females and transitioning to males after around 8 years. Sheepshead are popular among spear fishermen but are also important as predators keeping sea urchins in check, which in turn balance herbivory on macrosystis beds. These game animals all but disappeared, and to see them return within the confines of Long Point Marine Reserve is heartening.

The Trident is a useful tool for mapping benthic cover and species identification, including densities of purple sea urchin (strongylcentrotus purpuratus) for example.

Warm waters, storms and ecosystem imbalance have drastically shifted the kelp bed density. Of the many impacts, no fishing zones is one solution helping restore populations of overfished species and add resilience to a perturbed marine ecosystem. The results I experienced show that no-take reserves are helping to restore the balance and help these species recover.

Learn more


Heavy winds, large swells, great white sharks.

Not many people visit the Farallon Islands, mostly biologists and a few curious adventurers joining us on our fall Sharktober expeditions, and even fewer dive the islands. One notable exemption of the latter is Pt. Reyes urchin diver cum underwater cameraman Ron Elliot, featured in the film Sanctuary in the Sea. Now in his 70s, Ron has likely had more white shark encounters in the water than anyone on earth, still living that is.

Our last trip out in 2017 took place under fire stained skies, calm seas and the water as clear as it gets. Our dive team of two splashed near Saddle Rock at the entrance to Shark Alley hoping to document and record the local white sharks. Sea lions barked from the barren rocks of the marine terrace in Mirounga Bay and a few greeted us as we scouted with the Trident. The bottom of SEFI is granitic, littered with large aggregations of red urchins and smaller clusters of purple urchins and anemones. Several species of urchins color the rocks and at sixty feet the water is a surprisingly warm 59 degrees F., welcome on this wetsuit equipped expedition.

Pairs of China rockfish (sebastes nebulosous) nestle in rocks and the males display the large poisonous primary spines on their dorsal fins as the females nestle in to the crevices. Two huge lingcod (ophiodon elogatus) slither through the sea and take refuge from the seals. The water is clouded with larvae and the energy of this place is remarkable. The presence of these relatively large fish is a testimony to the marine protection in place. Several rockfish populations plummeted due to overfishing from the 1970s to the 1990s. NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service closed large areas to fishing in 2002 under special closures, called Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) all along the U.S. west coast, from the Canadian border to Mexico. The rockfish closure (RCA) is helping the Canary rockfish (sebastes pinniger) to recover and the fishery is again open to anglers under special conditions and limits set by California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Like sharks, the Sebastes are slow growing and long lived and more vulnerable to overfishing but the combinations of management and the no fishing zone under the California Marine Life Protection Act are helping these fish recover. Rockfish specialists Dr. Rick Starr (Sea Grant) and Dr. Mary Gleason (The Nature Conservancy) examine and evaluate rock fish assemblages and help State fisheries managers make decisions on RCAs and catch. Biologists like this frequently rely on underwater cameras to collect data, and with the Trident, data may be shared by citizen scientists.

In white shark feeding areas like the Farallones, perhaps cameras are a more prudent form of exploration. We didn't see any sharks on our dives this year, but the use of the Trident will he helpful in examining species make up and populations inside MPAs such as Southeast Farallon Island, and will be part of our underwater MPA Watch program under the Golden Gate MPA Collaborative Network.

Learn more about the Farallon Islands Expedition 2018 and our Borneo expedition on Open Explorer and on, and support it by donating on the link below.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1
Preparation Stage

The weather system that has driven the Southern California firestorms has also smoothed the ocean and calmed the northwesterlies so we will be departing for the last trip of the year under fairs seas and sky. This expedition will be a wet exploration diving two spots at SEFI. With the winds out of the east we will be likely taking refuge on the west side near Mirounga Bay (named after the genus of the Northern Elephant seal) aka shark alley.
Our team of four will be collecting observational data to add to the MPA Watch data base.
Along the way we will be looking for whales. The California Gray Whales are migrating south, there should be a few more humpbacks out, and you never know what you will experience out in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Follow updates on Facebook and Instagram @sharkstewards.


Eager to hear how the dive went!

As mentioned in our last post, we had the Trident Underwater Drone on the ship with us. Here is the video from our dive with the Sea Lions.

Please remember, it is illegal to harass a marine mammal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Our pilots took special care to leave Trident in place and allow the wildlife to approach Trident of their own volition. We do not condone using Trident to approach protected marine mammals.

Incredible visibility! We stationed 100 yards off the islands in Fishermen's Cove, an area outside of the special Exclusion Zone. Curious, the Sea lions in the water approached us and investigated.

Our MPA Watch offshore trial using the Trident ROV inside the South East Farallon Island Marine Reserve was a great test of the ROV in this marine wilderness. Entering Fisherman's Bay at the southwest end of the island, we were greeted by scores of curious California Sea Lions, even before we launched the ROV. The Akula, the Great White Adventures cage diving operation, anchored near Sugarloaf relayed a report that 4 sea lion kills had been observed that morning, one near their vessel. North of the rock, the Monterey Bay and Stanford's TOPP shark research team could be seen actively tagging, and I recognized the venerable Scot Anderson aboard. Scot is one of the originators of the Shark Watch project and has years of experience with white sharks off our coastline.

The sea lions curiously investigated the drone and we were a little nervous about a white shark encounter, such as the one that occurred in Guadalupe Island this season. Open ROV team members Mitch Dunn and Dominick Fretz (who was operating that drone in Mexico), piloted the same Trident plus a few scars on our expedition. We flew the bottom without incident and then skirted the Great Murre cave, where the cliffs are loaded with common murres preparing to nest again. Around the corner in Mirounga Bay aka Shark Alley, we again deployed the ROV. The water is a remarkable blue and clear as I have seen it, absent of the rich plankton soup that normally surrounds the island.

The Radon GW was observed anchored off Shubrick Point with white shark superman Ron Elliot lurking with his camera beneath the surface. We again moved to Maintop Bay in as good conditions as could be hoped for, and "flew" in 25 feet of water 150 yards from shore where the "shark sausages" lounged, (Northern Elephant Seals). This is also the zone where the sharks patrol at the Farallone's version of In and Out. The cast of characters resembles a remake of Susan Casey's Devil's Teeth, with Peter Pyle and Tom Johnson notably absent.

We didn't see any sharks but we did map Metridium anemones, urchins and several other species of invertebrates, and fish that await identification once we load the video.Several of our guests were able to drive the drone around under Dominik's guidance. Recording species and population assemblages at remote or inaccessible areas in our California MPAs will provide invaluable data for scientists and fisheries managers, and the Trident ROV is an excellent educational tool. Our annual trips will also record population structure and changes in species over time providing useful information on invasive species, range changes and other structural shifts that could be driven by warming sea temperatures, current shifts or ocean acidification. Leaving the island we encountered two Humpback Whales swimming steadily putting an end to a great day in the Gulf of the Farallones.

Our goal is to raise funds to develop an MPA Watch App and incorporate the ROV into a citizen science program along our entire network or MPA Collaboratives. Given the late season, we are unsure whether we will return in 2017, but the plan is to deploy the drone inside our coastal marine protected areas and outside as controls to monitor benthic conditions.

Follow the adventure, and learn more about our San Francisco Bay project at

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

Our fifth trip to the Farallon Islands in 2017 is preparing to launch. We have been hoping for a good weather window after three cancellations due to strong winds and heavy seas and we finally have it. Last week's test was a success in Fishermans Cove at South East Farallon island (SEFI) and the ROV was inspected by a curious sea lion. The shark season is peaking and we have our Trident to deploy to collect data on benthic species densities for MPA Watch and possibly a few pelagic fish near Saddle Rock.
We will send an Instagram or two via SharkStewards and record video to be posted later. The next plan is to dive before the weather closes us out of the farallones.

image-1 image-1

Following 3 cancellations due to large swell and high winds, we experienced ideal conditions on our November 12 expedition to the Farallon islands. Onboard was Open Explore co-founder David Lang with one of the new Trident ROV models, and several other designers and engineers.

Departing fisherman's wharf, we viewed several harbor porpoises (Phocina phoca) inside and outside the Golden Gate, harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) hauled up inside Point Bonita and three Humpback whales ((Megaptera novaeangliae) with several more to the south, we arrived at Fisherman's Cove at Southeast Farallon island. A mild 4 foot swell provided a little surge as the boat idled in the lee of Sugarloaf rock, a large granite islet hosting hundreds of double crested cormorants and brown pelicans. Onshore california and Northern elephant seals and harbor seals lolled, and Stellar's sea lions barked. Several of the latter entered the water in a welcoming committee as David deployed the Trident. The water was unusually clear and we could see the drone buzzing the bottom 15 feet below. On the monitor we could see the rich benthic habitat of the Farallones, carpeted with large purple urchins (S. pupuratus), white plumrose anemones (metridium farcifum) and abalone (Haliotus rufescens). This is one of the state Marine Reserves and no extraction is allowed around much of SEFI, with some allowable take of fin fish in the marine conservation south of the island. The rockfish recorded on the screen are safe from fishing, and the population appears to be recovering after a closure and now protection as a no take reserve. A sea lion (Zalophus californianus) inspected the underwater drone as it buzzed the bottom, but no large fish (even toothy white ones) appeared.

Anchored out in 50 feet of water, rocked the Akula, a twin hulled cage diving sark ecotourism boat equipped with a cage over the stern. We hailed them on the radio and I spoke to Lawrence Groth, one of the owners of Great White Adventures said they had seen two white sharks (Charcarodon carcharias) with one lingering near the cage. We continued south and took a peak into shark alley but the surge and report of blue whales out at the Continental shelf convinced us to move on.

We saw two blue whales (Baleonoptera musculus) steaming steadily south with 1500 feet of water beneath our keel. On our return we passed through scores of brown sea nettles (Chrysaora fuscescens) and moon jellies (Aurelia aurita) and a large bird feeding frenzy of pelicans, western and herring gulls, sooty shearwaters and common murrres all feeding on bait balls of anchovy.

Once the video is loaded we will log the species and enter them into the iNaturalist MPA data base. Eventually we hope to find funding to develop an App that will allow citizen scientists to enter observations of species as well as human behavior as part of our Golden Gate MPA Collaborative's MPA Watch program.

We have another trip planned for Saturday November 18 with room to join us. Tickets are available here. [

image-1 image-1 image-1

During the trip, we were able to run a successful dive with the OpenROV Trident drone. I'll post a long video for those who are interested, but here's a short clip of the view from beneath the waves.

image-1 image-1

Our expedition to the Farallon Islands has been postponed to November 12. We will be using a Trident to explore benthic habitat and observe pelagic fish, as well as record observations for the MPA Watch citizen science platform.

The waters outside the Golden Gate host an abundance of marine life, and a diversity of marine protection from our State MPAs to the rocks of the California Coastal National Monument to our National Marine Sanctuaries. Just outside the Golden Gate, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary reaches around the San Francisco Bay from Muir Beach on the  Marin shoreline, stretching south past Pacifica, San Mateo, Santa Cruz and the Monterey Bay to Big Sur and out the continental shelf.  To the north and west is the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS). Reaching up to Mendocino's Manchester Beach just past Point Arena and surrounding the deep Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the GFNMS expanded in 2015 to encompass 3295 square miles. The Cordell Bank extends west and slightly north of its former boundary to protect 1286 square miles of important features such as Bodega Canyon. Administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ( NOAA), the Sanctuaries protect historical and cultural resources and areas that encompass unique or significant natural features. The amendment in the expansion specifically restricts exploring, developing, or producing oil and gas in the Sanctuary.  A variety of state and federal laws protect fish in the Sanctuary, but commercial fishing is allowed in most of the area.

Embedded within these Federal Sanctuaries, and standing alone in State waters are the marine protected areas established under the California Marine Life Protection Act of 1999. This network of ecosystem managed, no take marine reserves, marine conservation areas which allow some fishing and marine parks extend from the Oregon Border to the Mexican Border and encompass 16% of our State waters. In a few unique circumstances state and federal habitat and species protection overlap.  In our Golden Gate region, this occurs at the Duxbury Reef of Bolinas, at Point Reyes and along several rocks and spires off the coast important for nesting seabirds and haul outs for seals, and the Farallon Islands, all areas in the Golden Gate MPA Collaborative network.

The Golden Gate MPA Collaborative has successfully brought together environmental NGOs, agencies, fishermen, scientists, aquaria and vessel captains interested in raising awareness of marine protected areas in Marin and San Francisco counties, including the Farallon Islands. Collaborative members are engaging boat captains and docents in an ambassador program targeting visitors to Point Reyes and the Farallones. Our new program includes expanding the existing shoreside MPA Watch to the Scuba and dive community. The oceanographic conditions creating the California Coastal Upwelling ecosystem are responsible for the abundant wildlife of our coastline. The marine conservation and management is the reason they are returning and will endure if we let them. This is why I routinely foray into the Gulf of the Farallones, diving, surfing, filming and leading wildlife expeditions. The Farralon Islands in particular draw me. The history, the raw wildness and the biology are mysterious and magnetic.


Thirty miles offshore, the jewel of the GFNMS and a focus of marine conservation are the Farallon Islands. On a clear day one can catch a glimpse of these mysterious, rocky Islands. The coastal Miwok Indians called them the Islands of the Dead, where the souls went to rest. Spanish mariners called them the Devil's Teeth for the unseen rocks and fog shrouded spires that sunk many a ship. Named by the Friar Ascension as part of the explorer Sebastian Vizcaino's mapping expedition in 1603, los Farallones means sea stacks or rocks that jut from the sea.  These rocks have been the source of shipwrecks for centuries, from tall ships to yachts. The islands are also the hub of much of our local marine life, from plankton to seabirds to whales.

Besides being nested within National Marine Sanctuary waters, the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge are part of our Federal Fish and Wildlife Refuge system. Included protections for seabirds and pinnipeds that nest and haul out are special closures of 1000 feet from shore, or 1000 feet for aircraft so as not to disturb the wildlife. The waters around the North Farallon Islands, a cluster of rocks and small islets from 80-120 feet tall are protected as no-take marine reserves (SMR) under the California Marine Life Protection Act 1999, (MLPA} and no fishing is allowed in the no-take zone. The waters around the largest island in the group, Southeast Farallon Island (SEFI), are a mix of fully protected No Take Marine Reserve and a Marine Conservation Area where some fishing is allowed. Each year Shark Stewards leads trips into the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the marine protected areas of the Golden Gate region observing, collecting data on wildlife and human behavior as part of an offshore MPA Watch program, a derivation of the existing coastal MPA Watch. Each voyage provides unique and memorable experiences seeking sharks and watching wildlife during the months we term Sharktober, as well as discussing marine protection.

When we see whales, and if we see a shark we photograph and record positions and provide any images with identifiable marks or characteristics to the Stanford's Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) project, or the Happy Whale site. Over 400 individual white sharks have been identified over 25 years by biologists from the Fish and Wildlife service stationed on the island and by TOPP.

These field trips introduce students and the general public to marine ecosystems, marine life and management challenges for both. Starting with estuarine ecosystems and marine geology we move out into the open ocean or the pelagic ecosystem. Using the App Spotter Pro, we record the vessel’s track in real time and add observations of marine mammals, providing data for resource managers and scientists. This year we are seeing Humpback Whales feeding on anchovies in between the two towers beneath the Golden Gate in the line of ships. These whales are vulnerable to getting struck and killed by ships, such as occurred to the 79 foot Blue Whale that washed up at Bolinas Beach this summer. Ships can avoid or reduce speed in areas of whale concentrations given information.

Near the historic lighthouse at Point Bonita, we view harbor porpoises feeding and nesting cormorants, as we discuss plate tectonics and the unique geology of this juncture between the Pacific, North American and the former Farallon Plate that thrust up the Francisco Terrane that makes up the Marin Headlands. While seeing harbor seals soaking up the sun and pelagic cormorants nesting on the steep rocks, we prepare for the open ocean. Heading up the coast we observe Bottlenose dolphins and Humpback whales, surrounded by shearwaters and murres all feasting on the schools of anchovy. Occasionally we see a Minke whale, Fin whale, Bryde's, California Grey whale and even Orcas.

Being on the water in the National Marine Sanctuary, and in our local North Central Regional California Marine Protected Areas helps our students and  guests appreciate and understand the importance of marine ecosystems as well as management issues. Scores of salmon boats fish among the feeding whales with several close encounters observed. It takes 3 hours to cross the Gulf and as one travels farther west the water transforms from the green chop of near shore to the rolling swells of the open sea. Land falls away and the view opens onto a limitless horizon. Black albatross spread their 7 foot wingspans, veering and dipping fish from the waves. Hailing from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands - now part of the Papahanaumokuakea- a Marine National Monument protected but currently under threat by the administration, these birds only come ashore once a year to mate and lay their single eggs on the ground. Sooty Shearwaters shoot past, migrants from New Zealand to feed in the rich waters of our Sanctuary.

Several species of sea lions (California and the larger golden Stellar’s) as well as Northern Fur Seals are all recovering from near extinction thanks to protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Five species of pinniped come ashore on the islands, and in some cases breed. Others haul out to give birth and molt including harbor seals and the white shark's favorite food: the northern elephant seals. The water is rich with plankton including the krill so important to many forms of marine life from the tiny Cassin’s Auklet to the mighty Blue Whale. Cruising by a shark cage-diving boat we were informed that two predation events (not shark attacks!) had been reported by observers on the Island last week. Biologists with Point Blue (formerly Point Reyes Bird Observatory) keep watch from the old lighthouse, recording the bird and pinniped population, doing species census, as well as recording people who enter the Sanctuary waters near the island. They also observe and identify if possible the white sharks, recording predations, and less exotic creatures (but unique and important) like the endemic Farallon cricket and salamander.

The Sanctuary regulations require mariners to stay 100 yards away from the islands and outlying rocks to avoid disturbing nesting and breeding seabirds. State regulations ban fishing south of SE Farallon Island, middle rock and North Farallon Islands. We headed uphill in the light wind and visited Point Reyes and Drakes Bay where another haul out of elephant seals exists. The exterior edge of Point Reyes is also a state marine protected areas with a 1000 foot exclusion. The protected Drakes Bay, part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, waters swarmed with cormorants, pelicans and shearwaters. Combined with federal protections are state marine protected areas established under the California Marine Life Protection Act.

On a federal scale, rocks and islets near shore critical for seabirds, marine mammals and other wildlife off the California coastline are protected under the California Coastal National Monument. Established in 2000, expanded in 2017 and administered under the Bureau of Land Management, these areas protect unique coastal habitat for marine-dependent wildlife and vegetation on more than 20,000 rocks, islands, exposed reefs and pinnacles along the California coastline.

It is always an adventure out at the islands, and these trips leave our guests amazed at the diversity and abundance of marine life so close to the city of San Francisco, and gives us a better appreciation of the continued challenges to restore and protect wildlife and ecosystems. All of this wildlife is currently at risk as the Administration considers opening the Sanctuary to oil and gas development, and reducing or eliminating the Marine National Sanctuaries of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and the Pacific Remote Islands. We call the return of the sharks to the Sanctuary Sharktober, and instead of maligning the white sharks that return to our waters following a two thousand mile migration, Shark Stewards celebrates the shark with a series of education, talks and film events. Join Shark Stewards on a Farallon Island Expedition during Sharktober, discussing sharks and conservation, collecting data as well as watching for whales and other marine life and help advance marine conservation.

Our next expedition is November 12.

Shark Stewards is a non-profit project of the Earth Island Institute.  Please, share, volunteer and donate to support our work!

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

So excited to join on November 12! Just wondering if I'm allowed to bring my own OpenROV?