The world’s wildest places do not ordinarily sit in the backyards of its most populous cities, but the Farallon Islands, an archipelago of rocky islets 27 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, are anything but ordinary. First, consider their appearance: the 10 islands in this National Wildlife Refuge jut suddenly from the Pacific; beautiful, cruel granite towers, devoid of vegetation, cloaked by fog and battered by storms. For centuries, the very sight of them inspired fear. 19th century sailors, who knew them as one of the ocean’s most notorious nautical speedbumps, host to a graveyard of wrecked ships, dubbed them the “Devil’s Teeth.” Their jagged, barren topography does not invite a person to kick back and stay awhile: Sixty-five-acre Southeast Farallon, the largest in the group, is the only islet that’s even remotely habitable, with a marine terrace providing a strip of flat area. Its sole dwellings are two 120-year-old houses; only one of them has electricity and running water. By federal law, the only inhabitants allowed to set foot on these islands are a handful of biologists who are there to monitor the wildlife, most of them affiliated with the Bay Area’s PRBO Conservation Science group, who manage the Farallones in tandem with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
And then there’s the islands’ unique perch at the ragged edge of the continental shelf, right before it plunges more than two miles down to the abyssal plain. The upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water at this ledge makes the location a showcase for the entire food chain, from the tiniest salp to the ocean’s most magnificent predator, the great white shark.
“They are here, and they are hungry,” read the Farallon logbook entry for October 7, 1998. It’s a typical note for this time of year: each fall, somewhere between 30 and 100 great white sharks arrive at the Farallones, attracted by the northern elephant seal colony and clusters of California sea lions, harbor seals, and even a smattering of endangered Stellar’s sea lions. The great whites remain for approximately three months, disappearing in winter, and then reappearing in September. Charter fishing captain Brian Guiles, whose boat The Flying Fish makes frequent trips past the islands, spots the animals with regularity: “They’re huge. I want to say like a Volkswagen.”
Since 1987, PRBO biologists (and other noteworthy shark scientists) have been conducting cutting-edge research on the species. Among their discoveries is this startling fact: year after year, it’s the same sharks who are returning. To date, more than 100 individuals have been identified, and in some cases satellite-tagged, their appearances and behaviors meticulously documented. This virtual neighborhood of great whites within a protected area offers something found nowhere else on Earth: the chance to study them in their natural environment, unaffected by chumming or baiting. As a result, the researchers have gotten to know the predators one-on-one.
Tomorrow, I’ll introduce you to a pair of biologists who were the human members of this aquatic neighborhood, and to the most legendary great white shark to have ever hunted at the Farallones: Stumpy, herself.