Sharks of the Farallon Islands

August 27, 2017

For my birthday, I received a gift certificate for a whale watching tour to the Farallon Islands. Although I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, I admit that I knew little about that cluster of islands. So to prepare for my trip to the Farallones, I went in search of a book to enlighten me on the topic. One that would provide depth and history to accompany the adventure. Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey succeeded spectacularly.

Special thank you to the author Susan Casey for graciously providing me with most of the photos below!

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Life on the Farallon Islands

About 30 miles due west of San Francisco, California sits the Farallon Islands. The only island out of the group that is barely habitable is the Southeast Farallon. It is no easy task to get there; it requires being hoisted by crane from a boat then winched up a cliff. Closed to the public, the islands are a national wildlife refuge. By law, there can be no more than eight people living on the Southeast Farallon. Water to drink is rainwater that is collected and filtered. Don’t expect hot water, it’s scarce. The toilet can’t be flushed often. Living there is a rough existence.

Peter Pyle (front) and Scot Anderson (back).
Peter Pyle (front) and Scot Anderson (back). Photo Credit: Susan Casey

Peter Pyle graduated from Swarthmore with a zoology degree in 1979 and eventually worked his way into an eight-week internship at Southeast Farallon Island. By 1985, he would spend up to half a year on the island as a staff biologist. Around that time, Scot Anderson qualified for an internship on the island and was later appointed principal great white shark researcher. Together, with the backing of Point Blue and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, they created the only long-term study of individual great white sharks called the Farallon Island White Shark Project. They quickly discovered that the sharks around the Farallones on average were larger than in other great white hubs.

“Fifteen feet was an average-size Farallon shark, eighteen was large, and twenty was rare but not unheard of. In other great white hubs – South Africa, Australia, Mexico’s Guadalupe Island – the sharks were generally eight-to twelve-foot juveniles”.

Susan Casey joins the Farallon crew

Having watched a BBC Documentary about Scot and Peter’s work, Susan was fascinated and determined to find out more. Susan got in touch with Peter and was granted a one-day permit to visit the island for a Time magazine story. When she first went out on the boat to see the sharks in action, her head was swarming with questions about the shark’s behavior. After a disappointing day with no shark sightings, she was then invited to return for the entire next year’s shark season.

Susan was immersed in island life with the team and by the end of the season, she still wasn’t satisfied. Sharks and the island were a constant companion in her thoughts. As time passed, her desire to dig deeper intensified and during her free time she would continue with research into the Farallones. Susan eventually got her wish and was able to return and do more than just watch shark research, she was to join the crew.

Farallon Island landing 1871
Farallon Island landing 1871

Devil’s Teeth

Early sailors referred to the Farallones as “the devil’s teeth” because of their nautical dangers and the jutting shapes of the islands. Susan was able to dig up fascinating stories about the island’s history. Sir Francis Drake was the first European to set foot on the island in 1579. A fur trader named Jonathan Winship arrived at the island in the early 1800s and within two years and killed seventy-three thousand animals for their fur. The most valuable being the pelt of a sea otter.

“To run your fingers through a sea otter pelt, with it’s millions of hairs per square inch, is to viscerally sense its doom. This is one plush animal, richer than ermine, silkier than mink.”

And now my watch begins

At the peak of the Farallones stands a lonely lighthouse. Built in 1855, it’s the best vantage point from which to spot shark attacks. Due to Scot’s creation of Sharkwatch, it meant that one of the inhabitants of the island was on shift for every daylight hour of shark season. Spotting a shark attack from the lighthouse wasn’t difficult. The bright vivid scarlet slick that extended across the water is hard to miss. This is because of the high oxygen content found in elephant seal blood. Another clue to mark an attack was the great flock of gulls swirling overhead.

Blood in the water from a shark attack
Blood in the water from a shark attack. Photo Credit: Susan Casey
Lighthouse on Southeast Farallon
Lighthouse on Southeast Farallon

Once a shark attack was spotted, the lighthouse would radio to the team below and all would race to launch the boat. The goal was to bring back video and take down details of the encounter. There are still many unanswered questions about shark behavior which can only be learned by regular observation. One such instance is when Spotty (a great white shark) had visited the Farallon Islands for eleven consecutive years. Spotty was almost always accompanied by Cuttail (another great white shark).

“Did they travel together all the time? Or were they simply sharing some turf? Scot and Peter were hoping to put satellite tags on both sharks next season to find out. Such a discovery should be huge. If these two had been hanging out together for a decade, how could anyone go on thinking of white sharks a rogue assassins, the ocean’s killing machines? Rather, they’d be animals with intelligence enough to choose their friends, and to keep them close by.”

The payoff

Often it could take decades of research before they’d see any scientific payoff. But Peter and Scot had a breakthrough. Satellite tags on the sharks relayed information and it was clear that the Farallon sharks were traveling faster, deeper and farther out into the ocean than previously thought.

“Tipfin was discovered to have cruised 2,300 miles to Hawaii in thirty-seven days. He remained near Maui for at least four months, and then turned around and returned to the Farallones in October.”

It also became clear that sharks could identify shapes. Over years of observation, Scot realized that sharks would not attack a square decoy but when faced with a seal or surfboard shape then the sharks would at least investigate it. The Farallon sharks aren’t pack hunters but they do have a ranking system. After an attack, the sharks wouldn’t swarm into a feeding frenzy, instead, they would eat based on hierarchy.

Related: My article about eco-friendly whale watching and shark spotting at The Salt Sirens

Summary

There is so much more to Devil’s Teeth than just the dorsal fins of sharks slicing through the ocean. The history of the Farallones is unparalleled and fascinating to dive into and those stories are a testament to Susan Casey’s research. They were also one of my favorite parts of the book. Truth is often stranger than fiction. Such as the businesswoman who attempted to import females from the East. Or the bird egg harvesters on the island having internal wars with the lighthouse keepers. There were even seventeen children living on Southeast Farallon by 1887.

I loved that this book is a window into another world that we experience through Susan’s eyes. Join her journey and live as a member of the shark research team on the rugged and unforgiving Farallon Islands. To summarize I’ll paraphrase several telling lines from the book; Great white sharks don’t come into your life in a forgettable way. Once they grab your imagination they don’t let go.

Read all about my whale watching tour to the Farallon Islands! I’ll walk you through what to expect, my experiences, and share tips and photos along the way.

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By Amber Alexander

Through my own adventures, I strive to provide insight into experiences that will enrich your life. Traveling is my passion and I want to share that with you. Along with recommendations for adventures, I will also review books and supplies that are related to those adventures. I want you to push your own boundaries of what you thought you could do. Let me be your guide and compass to rediscovering how fun life can be!

1 Comment

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    Eco-Friendly Whale Watching and Shark Spotting on the Farallon Islands - The Salt Sirens

    […] The researchers would track everything about the sharks including frequency of seal attacks. The best vantage point to see shark attacks is from the island’s lighthouse. The vivid red slick of elephant seal blood and the circling seagulls overhead are the tell-tale signs of an attack. Often research takes decades before it pays off. But the shark researchers quickly discovered through tagging that the Farallon sharks were traveling farther, deeper, and faster than previously thought. One great white was recorded having traveled 2,300 miles to Hawaii in thirty-seven days. The shark stayed around Maui for four months then turned around and came back to the Farallones. If you’re interested in learning more about the Farallon Islands and its shark research, check out my review of the book Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey. […]

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