Unsettled Waters: Golden Gate MPA WatchLatest update November 3, 2017 Started on 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 the islands 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 Whale Alert and iNaturalist apps we also record whale and shark observations inside the Sanctuary.
The Blue Shark Blues just got a little more upbeat.
San Diego: Offshore 13 miles, 1600 feet of water.
For over two years I have been on a quest to film blue sharks, starting at our International Ocean Film Festival San Francisco in 2017 with friends and filmmakers Claudia and Hendrik Schmidt of Hamburg (The Jet Lagged). Both avid divers and with free time following the festival, we were determined to dive the California coast and find some sharks to film. A few decades ago, filming blue sharks off the California coastline would have been easy. I used to see scores of blue sharks sunning at the surface between LA and the Channel Islands on our dive trips at the Channel Islands.
Once one of the most common pelagic sharks off our coastline and in the world’s oceans, the blue shark (Prionace glauca) has nearly disappeared from the oceans. Not targeted as food, these sharks are largely killed as bycatch and increasingly for their fins to satisfy the shark fin soup trade. With increasing concern for the decline of blue sharks along the west coast of N. America, and globally, we decided to pile into the VW van with dive gear to find some sharks, specifically blue sharks.
Diving along the central coast we explored kelp forests and Marine Protected Areas from Point Lobos to Catalina Island to La Jolla Cove. We witnessed recovering ecosystems with large abundances of rockfish, sheepshead wrasse and spiny lobster, even small sharks like leopard sharks and horn sharks, but we didn’t find a blue shark. Generally preferring open water, we hoped to find these sleek sharks near the Channel Islands the past two summers but no luck. Along the way, we heard of an outfit that has had some success finding blue sharks offshore: SD Expeditions.
We joined owner/operator Nicholas LeBeouf aboard his 40 foot vessel in Mission Bay San Diego, and steamed offshore about 15 miles. We had met Nick before when Shark Stewards board member Jeff Morrison had arranged for us to dive, but heavy weather one year, a boat problem the next precluded the trip to find blue sharks. Today is the day we decide. We leave the harbor under clear skies on a relatively warm spring day with a six foot west swell closing out the local beaches. Soft spoken, close cropped hair and a hyper fit diver, Nick resembles a ninja cage fighter more than the diver and adventurer he is. He has been leading these trips into the blue water sharing dolphins, whales, sunfish and sharks for several years bringing photographers and freedivers, including several Discovery and broadcast crews.
Far from shore we stop, the Coronoados Islands far to the south, Hurry up and wait is the mantra as the boat heaved in the swell over a canyon 1600 feet below. Our new friend Alex flew his drone. Others dropped off to sleep or stared into their phones. Someone puked over the side. First in went the Trident ROV for a search. I drove around hunting in the clear blue water but found nothing but a few salps drifting in the current. Hours passed, sandwiches consumed and naps resumed. The sun dipped west and running out of time I deployed the mini- ROV again watching the monitor for movement. A Fulmar- small cousin to the mighty Albatross- paddled around curious, pecking at pieces of bait. Suddenly a fin flashed past the periphery. Shark! Maneuvering the underwater drone, I focused on a distant spot and at last a six foot blue shark appeared, swimming full frame up to the ROV.
The crew leaped into action and suiting up the divers jumped into the open water. We were satisfied by scores of passes as the shark collected chunks of mackerel. Freediving with my new 360 camera I was able to capture shots from below, above and in front of this shark. Unfortunately, my HD camera housing leaked so I was unable to film with that, but I am anxious to see what the 360 footage looks like. Blue sharks are as blue as the open sea, almost indigo with a pale underside. Slender with a long snout, large black eye and large pectoral fins, they are the perfect shark. Eventually the shark left and the seven snorkelers climbed back aboard, only to be delighted by hundreds of common dolphins feeding on a large school of forage fish. A lone humpback whale lunge-fed as seabirds swirled above the blows. Dolphins swam and leaped in 360 degrees as another small blue shark nudged a bucket hanging over the side. In all, it was an epic day and I can’t wait to return with the German team to finish our film Endless Shark.
Blue sharks did not make the proposed protections under Appendix II at CITES to be held at the Coalition of the Parties in Sri Lanka this spring, but Mako sharks which frequently swim with blues, and are perhaps even more threatened, are being considered. A shark with high reproductive capacity, the blue shark could recover from overfishing given more protection. This year we will attend the CITES convention with The Shark Research Institute and the US Department Fish and Wildlife advocating for increased protection from the shark fin trade for Mako sharks and the largely threatened giant guitarfish and 5 cousins. I hope that increased protection under the Convention of Migratory Species, as well as national shark fin trade prohibitions in the US and Canada, along with a decrease in demand for shark fin soup will allow the beautiful blue shark to continue to swim the blue.
Follow the film and our work at CITES at sharkstewards.org
2019 EcoBlitz CA- Teaming National Geographic Explorers with Educators and Youth
This week we paired with youth from two 3rd grade classes at the Clara Barton Elementary School adding observations on iNaturalist and picking up and counting marine debris. The kids were excited to go outdoors and learn about worms, moth larvae, spiders and pill bugs on their school grounds. Day two and three the kids performed debris cleanups, picking up at least 35 # on the school grounds and entering later into the Survey 123 form for later analysis by Explorer scientists. The most common form was plastic, with food wrappers representing the majority. Surprisingly we picked up 7 cigarette butts, despite the ban on smoking on school grounds and 20 feet from any entrance.
The kids appreciated the videos we showed on sharks and ocean health, and our youth film Hang Onto your Butts. Over 30 educators from urban schools to the seashore conducted debris surveys and cleanups and data collection using the iNaturalist platform in the first statewide EcoBlitz.
We have two days left and then the data analysis follows. So far we have over 830 observations with 226 species logged state-wide! [https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/2019-ecoblitz-ca]
Later I drove to Seal Beach near the San Gabriel River- the same upstream effluent near the school. The roiling waters from the heavy rains eliminated the use of the Trident, but I walked the beach and documented the hundreds of pieces of plastic. Thanks to the kids of Clara Barton elementary, hundreds more did not make their way to the beach!
In never rains in California, or so the song goes. Big swells, lots of wind and rain have put our Golden gate MPA Collaborative offshore trips on hiatus so we head south. Maybe they mean it never rains in Southern California so I head south and join Michael Quill of LA Waterkeeper and the Los Angeles MPA Collaborative and Calla Allison, head of the State MPA Collaborative program. We depart the Waterkeeper slip in Marina del Rey and motor past big yachts with plastic orange mesh fencing, Home Depot buckets on the sterns and weird plastic coyotes and a wolverine- thing on the docks, intended to deter the California sea lions using the yachts as a spare bedroom. Where is a white shark when you need one?
Under cloudy skies, we motor south to Palos Verdes to Point Vincente, site of one of California's Marine Protected Areas, and then onto the adjacent Abalone Cove State Marine Conservation Area. As part of the MPA- Vessel Watch program Michael runs six mile transects taking observations on human use in and alongside MPAs. We log boats transiting and fishing near the MPAs, and commercial boats collecting lobster from traps alongside the reserve line. Hundreds of buoys line the water just outside (and some inside by our reckoning) known as fishing the line. This spill-over effect is an indication that the spiny lobsters inside the MPAs are repopulating and spilling over outside where they are fair game, and the fishermen know this.
Along the shoreline recreational fishermen cast lines into the small surf, while some collect form tide pools and these are recorded as well. A pod of dolphins mill nearby and harbor seals rest in the giant kelp beds. The macrosystis appears to be recovering after two years of “The Blob” unseasonably warm sea surface temperatures, and an el Nino in 2017 which severely impacted the kelp beds. Our observations done, we launch the Trident into the water at the edge of the kelp. The conditions are excellent for real diving, with the bottom visible forty feet below, but we content ourselves with the ROV. The bottom is rocky with sand channels and the shadows cast by the kelp canopy always reminds me of walking through redwoods. We see several pugnacious Garibaldi, but surprisingly few fish near the No- take reserve. I just replaced the motors and the Trident has more power than before, which is good because the tether tangles in the kelp stipes, and it takes some backing and filling to free it.
On the way back to the marina we pass beneath ascending jumbo jets departing LA, pass the Edison Plant with three concrete stacks at King Harbor, skirt the Hyperion sewage treatment plant for LA and a new desalinization plant off a beach strewn with surfers. An interesting mix of industry and recovering wildlife, a grey whale swims determinedly south, late in the migration. A storm approaches and spits mist onto us as we re-enter the harbor. On occasion, it even rains in Southern California.
Our final public education trip in 2018 ran on November 25 under low fog, and mists so thick we could barely see the red towers of the Golden Gate as we slipped beneath. Vestiges of the Thanksgiving swell break on the bar to our port as we head north up the Bonita channel as the cliffs of the Marin headlands peak beneath the low mists. The Silver Fox rocks familiarly to the mild cross swell as we head west into the fog, passing red painted buoys of crab pots set for the winter harvest. Mid-channel the fog lifts and we spy the blows of whales to the south. Soon we are again among a score of humpback whales feeding just north of the weather buoy. A large container ship heads north with two whales a half mile off the bow. We enter the observation in the App Whale Alert and hope the whales will avoid the ship. Ship strikes are a leading cause of whale mortality, along with entanglement in fishing gear like the crab pots littering the surface. Many whales including blue, humpback and gray have been reported dead from ship strikes this year. In 2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded 24 dead whales on our coastline. Since some carcasses drift offshore or sink, it is likely more fall prey to ship traffic.
The islands are quiet this time of year. Most of the nesting seabirds have left for places west and south, but the common murres have remained, nesting again among the rocks of Southeast Farallon Island. These comical birds struggle to leave the surface in flight on their short wings. We call these birds the penguins of the Bay, but they are not penguins, but belong to the Auk family Alcidae, which includes guillemots, auklets, puffins, and murrelets. Common Murres (Uria aalge) are a diving bird, flying underwater to catch fish, beating their wings to depths over 150 meters. The bird’s nest in colonies on the rocks and stacks of the islands, laying eggs on the sheer cliffs. packing the guano covered rocks like pepper on salt. These birds were once hunted to near extirpation (local extinction) caused by harvesting during the gold rush. In the 1850s, it is estimated that a half-million eggs were gathered per year. Their value created an "Egg Rush" with men plundering the valuable eggs for sale in the burgeoning colony of San Francisco. Harvesting the birds and the eggs caused the murre population to decline from millions to mere thousands. Now recovering, these and other seabirds are still at risk to oil spills, but no longer to the gill nets that have drifted off the central California coastline. Set for swordfish and sharks, these gill nets have recently been banned thanks to a decade of work by conservation groups including Shark Stewards. It is a welcome sight to see the rocks filled with nesting Murres crowding the rocks above the waves.
Flying the ROV we see many species of rockfish, and several large ochre stars (pisaster ochraceous): a good sign. Sea stars experienced a serious die-off along North American Pacific coastline in 2013. The disease, called “sea star wasting syndrome” (SSWS) devastated these sea stars and continued to kill these and other species of sea stars like the larger sunflower star. The apex predator of the intertidal, the absence of Ochre stars opens opportunities for mussels and urchins to proliferate along the rocks. Ecologists consider sunflower and ochre stars to be keystone species because they have a disproportionately large influence on other species in their ecosystem. It’s a good to observe these sea stars among the urchins, another sign that the MPA is protecting diversity as well as abundance.
One of our science team, Viktoria Kuehn sees a soupfin shark swimming above the granite boulders of Mirounga Bay. These sharks (also called school or Tope sharks) school and were once commercially harvested off San Francisco. These sharks resemble the pelagic Blue shark but are smaller and pup inside the San Francisco Bay. Schools of Sebastes rockfish swarm above the bottom as krill flit around the mussel beds. While we are preoccupied recording the bottom with the Trident, a large white shark surfaces in a lazy investigation of Pinhead- our decoy floating off the stern. The gunmetal grey back of the shark rolls past, bumping Pinhead without a bite, and then shows the white belly as she rolls beneath the surface. The group gathered at the stern is jubilated but the image is stored only in our eyes as ours is pointed at the other apex predators: the ochre stars.
On the way home we search for mola mola, but see the severed corpse of a sea lion floating mid-Gulf, part of a discarded meal, likely by a white shark. We searched the surface but could see no sign of the shark, but more whales spout into the reddening sky. Re-entering the San Francisco Bay, we slide back on smooth waters escorted by the harbor porpoises and brown pelicans. Although the last public trip, I'm still hoping to revisit the islands this year on a little unfinished business.
One thing I love about Nature is it is unpredictable. On Saturday the weather buoy out on the Gulf of the Farallones did not top 15 knots. With a mild swell and a beautifully calm morning at the dock, our group gave the thumbs up Sunday morning, and we headed to the Golden Gate an hour early thanks to the time change. We slid along on the end of the ebbtide past harbor porpoises and Heerman's gulls feeding in the turbulence created by the tides and the shear along the Cavallo Spire. The double-crested, pelagic cormorants and common murres beat their way west and are still feasting on anchovies. We are joined by several small craft speeding out to set their traps for Dungeness crab.
The four-fathom bank aka "The Potato Patch" is not breaking and the wind is light as we steam north before making the tack due west to the islands. Outside Duxbury reef, we see that the salmon fishermen have been replaced by the crab fishermen. A popular reef for fishing, Duxbury is part of the California Marine Protected Area network and is a State Marine Conservation Area which limits but does not prohibit all take. Fish and abalone are allowed to be taken from shore under the rules, but the abalone population has crashed due to a viral outbreak and exacerbated by overfishing so the fishery is closed. We see several buoys but they are placed in the soft sediments far outside the 1000 yard setback defined under the MLPA.
We head west past tow large party boats lined with anglers fishing for rockfish and lingcod and the wind keeps building and spray begins to make its way across the deck. Checking the buoy report 18 miles out, the forecast is not good, so we turn the boat back inshore towards Double Point to see if we can deploy the ROV. We approach Stormy Stack rock outside the point, staying well outside the 300-foot boundary. These rocks are part of the special closures defined under the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) of 1999 establishing our network of marine protected areas, including 15 special closures.
Duxbury Reef is part of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, encompassing over 3295 square miles of ocean and shoreline along the northern California coast. The sanctuary protects 33 marine mammal species, including 20% of California's breeding harbor seal population. The Farallon Islands are home to the largest colony of seabirds in the lower 48 states, and are an important feeding grounds for blue, fin and humpback whales. We encounter large schools of gulls swarming around water darkened by schools of forage fish. Alongside six humpback whales blow and feed lazily on the fish.
The Stormy Stack Rock special closure is designated from the mean high tide line to a distance of 300 feet seaward of the mean lower low tide line of any shoreline of Stormy Stack Rock, located in the vicinity of 37° 56.830’ N. lat. 122° 47.140’ W. long. As part of the MPA Watch program, we are observing human behavior around or in the marine protected areas. Today, people gather at the base of the Alamere waterfall onshore as part of the Point Reyes National Seashore well away from the rocks, and the two fishing vessels hang their lines a half mile south.
The waves make the water turbid and constant piloting of the boat necessary, so we decide not to deploy the ROV to avoid entanglement in the propeller. Heading south we see more whales and an unusual sighting: a small solitary whale close into the beach swimming south towards Duxbury Reef. The size, behavior and shape of the dorsal fin suggest it is a solitary pilot whale, something we will confirm after consulting with our colleagues with the Golden Gate Cetacean Research Society with whom we share sightings data. It was a great trip, but we are already planning our next Farallones expedition in two weeks to deploy the ROV and film sharks and collect DNA.
The Gulf of the Farallones can be a fickle and treacherous thing. Last year we were forced to postpone, cancel or reschedule four times out of seven trips. This year we have been able to run every trip. The weather this year is cooperating with our fifth expedition running with calm to moderate wind and seas and a very thick fog. A four foot NW swell combined with a two foot south bump made for a mild rolling on the way out but we were again able to circumnavigate Southeast Farallon Island (SEFI) staying well clear of Maintop Bay in the north end.
This shallow rock-laden Bay takes the full force of the wind and surf and took the lives of five sailors when shipwrecked in a yacht race around the island 5 years ago. The owner of the boat was on our vessel and pointed out the rock he perched on while awaiting rescue. The Devils Teeth have claimed their due over the years with several shipwrecks around the island.
We tend to stay on the leeward side and steer clear of Maintop in all but the most clement weather. Today we again deployed the ROV in about 40 feet of water. The camera drifted through energizing clouds of brown sea nettles, and small mola mola. Searching along the bottom we saw lingcod and the everpresent urchins and anemones. Piloting around Shark Alley, the wind pushed us south and Captain Chris Duba maneuvered the Silver Fox slightly west to avoid sea rock.
The fog quickly cleared and we were treated to a beautiful fall day. While driving the ROV around from the Starboard- side stern searching for wildlife, we were surprised by a large shark that performed a partial breach along our port side, giving a half roll to look at the passengers lined along the rail. These incidents are lightning quick and no one was able to photograph the shark, but observed the white belly that gives the sharks their name (the backs are dark blue to grey).
Heading north around Indian Head we passed the Great Arch, and entered Fishermans Bay and filmed more curious and cavorting sea lions. One had the tell-tale circular scars of the cookie cutter shark, a specialized dogfish that bites and rotates, pulling a plug out of their prey. Two Brown Boobies, a Gannet that usually lives in the tropics were observed atop Sugarloaf among the pelicans and cormorants.
Turning back to the mainland, we were treated to a clear view of Mouth Tamalpais, thirty miles east, and traveled home through at least eight Humpback whales. Steering well south inside mile rock to avoid the worst of the strong ebb tide, we passed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, mission accomplished.
I'm looking forward to next weekend to initiate a search for a lost piece of equipment using the ROV. But that's another story.
Every day is an adventure and a beautiful experience out in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. I feel so fortunate to be able to share what we are protecting through our Sanctuary and California marine protected area network. Anomalously warm sea surface temperatures in 2015 and 2016, combined with the El Nino event in 2017 severely impacted the health of our kelp forests. With urchin barrens overrunning the giant Nereocyctis off the Sonoma and Mendocino coastlines, overfishing and diseased abalone and seastars. Even with our state and federal protections, the ocean needs help.
Out at the Farallon Islands, we experience the abundance and diversity of the California Upwelling marine ecosystem, and now we are documenting it using the Trident. Besides my research assistant Viktoria, guests and paying passengers, we had Kimberly Chambers aboard, the first woman to ever have swum the 30 miles across the gulf to the Golden Gate. Having made the leap at midnight in 2015, Kim got to experience the islands in broad daylight. This trip we did not see any sharks, but we said hello to Ron Elliott, retired urchin diver and active cameraman at the island. Ron has had more encounters with white sharks than anyone and the passengers who read Susan Casey's Devil's Teeth were thrilled to see the legend in the flesh.
We flew the Trident where Ron said he had just seen "One little 14 footer." We missed the shark but saw vast quantities of brown sea nettles (Chrysaora fucescens) and several Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) who love to eat them. We have been seeing this odd flattened fish at the surface, but this is a first for me underwater. The health of the benthic habitat is a marked difference from the areas wasted by the purple urchin explosion along the coastal areas; a sign of ecosystem imbalance.
Two cage diving vessels were in the vicinity, and given the calm seas, several small fishing boats "fishing the line" at the edge of the MPAs. There is a lot of huge schools of forage fish, in this case, anchovies, feeding the bottom of the food chain and the higher level consumers are enjoying it from Cassin's auklets to humpback whales.
Writing this I just learned Ron was bitten this morning in the hand by a white shark while diving the Farallones alone. He was airlifted to hospital and is said to be doing well and we wish him a speedy recovery. We will be back out weather permitting this Saturday for another run along the bottom on the Open Explorer project.
Expedition with the Giants at Catalina Island
by Alice Zhao, Shark Steward's Intern Photo David McGuire Video- Sharks of Catalina by Shark Stewards
We are diving off the coast of Catalina Island at 90 feet deep. As a new diver certified in the tropics, I am not yet accustomed to diving with a wetsuit. The water is cold, and I can feel the weight of the tank on my back. I am searching for giant sea bass with Dave Chan, my dive master and director of the Pennington Marine Science Center at Emerald Bay, to assist with their research project monitoring these critically endangered fish. We are diving a pinnacle in the Arrow Point to Lions Head State Marine Conservation Area, and Dave is also part of the Catalina MPA Collaborative network.
We kick in canyons of granite boulders inhabited by bull kelp, bright orange garibaldi, and green-patterned kelp bass. I scan the dark water searching for sea bass, and when I turn my head for one second, there she is, camouflaged against the rock. Her huge black dots blend in with the water, while her small eyes stare at me intently, and I am amazed by the huge size of the giant sea bass.
The giant sea bass (Stereolepid gigas) is the largest bony fish living in the coastal waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The largest recorded was 7.4 feet long in total length, and a 7-feet fish weighed 539 pounds (Love, 229). Although historically abundant, they were once a very common sport fish taken especially along the offshore islands of southern California. Along with commercial fishing in Baja California, Mexico, their population has decreased drastically over the past few decades. The fish has been protected in California since 1981 and protected in Mexico since 1992.
Considering the life cycle of a giant sea bass, it is not surprising that the population of this species is so vulnerable. They are a slow growing fish that only mature at around 11-13 years. This makes them more vulnerable to predators.They spawn every year around July to September, with each female containing millions of eggs. Given protection, it appears that the fish are making a recovery in California. Scientists believe that protecting habitat through marine protected areas (MPA) and species protection is leading to the recovery of this population at Catalina. Long Point and White Rock are state marine conservation areas (SMCA) included in the California network of MPAs. Established in 1999, this network is an ecosystem-based managed, scientifically monitored system of interconnected MPAs. This network of 124 MPAs include state marine reserves (SMR) that prohibit all take of marine organisms, and SMCAs, which allow for limited take of some species. The Pennington Marine Science Centre whom Dave works for is investigating this recovery inside and outside the MPAs outside western Catalina through direct observation.
On another day, we used the Trident remote operating vehicle (ROV) in an attempt to observe the fish in their natural habitat. However, as these fish prefer deeper waters, the length of our tether restricted the ROV to only 30 feet deep and we did not find any giant sea bass at that depth. This information is useful for future observations, and the PMSC team will return with a ROV equipped with a longer tether.
Compared to the sharks that we dove with during my stay at Catalina Island, these fish were less concerned about the presence of divers. However, the depth frequented prohibit long bottom times by divers using conventional SCUBA, making the ROV safer and more functional for studying this population.
Eschmeyer, William N., and Earl Stannard. Herald. A Field Guide to Pacific Coast Fishes: North America. Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Gilbert, Carter R. Field Guide to Fishes. Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Love, Milton S. Probably More than You Want to Know about the Fishes of the Pacific Coast. Really Big Press, 1996.
“Stereolepis Gigas .” Dromaius Novaehollandiae (Common Emu), www.iucnredlist.org/details/20795/0.
Exploring our Sanctuary at the Gulf of the Farallones is a gift of Nature. Like many gifts, sometimes you don't quite get what you ask for. In this case, as our vessel the Silver Fox pulled into Fisherman's Cove, we were greeted by the usual welcoming committee of cavorting California sea lions, but also by the island flies. These little pests live on the rich guano left by the numerous nesting birds on the island, and although a nuisance, that's nature!
We documented the rich invertebrates and pinnipeds in Fishermen's Cove, then moved to Mirounga Bay aka "Shark Alley." Our NOAA permit allows us to put out seal shaped decoys equipped with cameras, but today the Trident made the day. A lovely male white shark swept by the motionless Trident in two meters of water. Uninterested in the decoys, he showed a casual interest in the ROV and made several curious passes. Later, a female gave the ROV a glance, doing a casual sweep by nearly brushing the drone. Without a tag, the many distinct scars and markings will enter these recognizable sharks into the Block Lab's database in the Tagging of Pelagic Predators program (TOPP- (http://gtopp.org)) at the Hopkins Marine Station. Data like this will help us better understand these magnificent predators and help protect them, as well as their prey.
We also saw massive Mola molas, entered 8 humpbacks into the database and experienced an exciting day on the Gulf of the Farallones. These public trips inspire support for our National Marine Sanctuary, and the direct benefits of laws like the Endangered Species Act which brought back brown pelicans, grey whales and Northern Elephant Seals back from the brink of extinction.
Exploring our Sanctuary in the Gulf of the Farallones is a gift of Nature and I am so grateful to share the experience first hand on our tours and secondhand through Open Explore. The abundant and rich marine life off our coastline is also a gift of the leaders who first protected the marine ecosystem and species under the Sanctuary system and state marine protection network. Credit also goes to the people who manage the marine resources, and the general public who love it. Now, more than ever, we need to support our Sanctuaries and marine protected areas. Learn how at Sharkstewards.org
Each time I visit the Farallon Islands, it is a novel experience. On every visit I am reminded of the dynamic forces at work in the Gulf of the Farallones created by the changing conditions and wildlife. Some days the islands are dark and brooding, and the jagged rocks appear as sharp and menacing as the Devil's teeth. Today the islands are bright and crisp and almost welcoming. The red beaked, Tufted Puffins are having a successful year of fledglings, and 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 nourishes 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 www.sharkstewards.org
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.
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 SharkStewards.org.
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.
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 (http://www.mpacollaborative.org/about/aboutus/), 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 (https://www.calacademy.org/citizen-sciencel) 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 http://www.mpacollaborative.org/goldengate/
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 Sharkstewards.org, and support it by donating on the link below.
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.
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.
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 www.sharkstewards.org.
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.
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. [https://www.universe.com/events/farallones-sanctuary-and-devils-teeth-whale-and-wildlife-expedition-tickets))
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.
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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!
David McGuire Short bio here http://sharkstewards.org/about-sharkstewards/david-mcguire/
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