The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary sits between Cordell Bank and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries, off the coast of California.
Many of metropolitan San Francisco’s eight million people are not aware that NOAA’s Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary surrounds a unique island chain and wildly beautiful mainland shores just beyond the Golden Gate.
The sanctuary protects nearly 3,367 square kilometers (1,300 square miles) of coastal and offshore waters. It includes the near-shore coastal areas of Bodega, Tomales, and Drake’s Bays; Bolinas Bay and Lagoon; the Esteros de San Antonio and Americano; and Duxbury Reef. Its boundaries extend offshore past the edge of the shallow continental shelf for approximately 65 kilometers (40 miles), where it plunges down the steep Farallon Escarpment to a depth of 2.4 kilometers (7,800 feet).
Just a few miles east of the shelf edge, and officially part of the City of San Francisco, the rocky Farallon Islands lie 43 kilometers (27 miles) off San Francisco, 32 kilometers (20 miles) south of Point Reyes. They are extremely important breeding and pupping (birthing) habitat for northern elephant seals, harbor seals, Steller sea lions, California sea lions, and northern fur seals. They are also the largest seabird rookery in the contiguous United States.
Because the islands are a National Wildlife Refuge, they can accommodate only eight resident scientists at a time. This makes them, in terms of area per person, the City by the Bay’s most exclusive address! Real estate values aside, the isolated, nearly inaccessible islands provide safe haven for wildlife; however, the bountiful sanctuary waters surrounding them provide the sustenance for wildlife to thrive.
“The sanctuary’s visibility is growing, though, largely due to aggressive public and media outreach, and the cyclical migrations and fascinating machinations of its ‘charismatic megafauna,’ that is, its whales, seals, and white sharks,” says Mary Jane Schramm, the sanctuary’s media liaison and public outreach specialist.
Beach Watch volunteers document the live and dead animals in the sanctuary.
The sanctuary also runs a popular volunteer program, called Beach Watch, which its research coordinator, Jan Roletto, started back in 1993. Now in its 16th year, today Beach Watch boasts more than 120 highly trained beach surveyors. The program even has a three-year waiting list for hopefuls.
Beach Watchers work along 53 beach segments in the sanctuary, including such famous Bay Area shores as Pt. Reyes National Seashore, Ocean Beach, and the San Mateo County coast. During monthly surveys, they count and record the number of live birds and marine mammals and dead animals; record the human activities taking place (e.g., number of visitors, swimmers, surfers); note the presence of any oil, tarballs, algae, or invertebrates such as jellyfish; and take photos to document stream, lagoon, and shoreline conditions.
“This information has proved invaluable in managing the sanctuary,” Roletto notes. Documenting dead animals establishes baseline mortality rates and trends, which can be compared during a human-induced disturbance such as an oil spill. Live bird and mammal counts provide seasonal and spatial trends for coastal wildlife and known locations of threatened and endangered species to direct resource protection efforts.
Information on visitor activities offers insight into their effects on wildlife, if, for example, a large number of visitors reduces the shorebird population. Beach Watch surveys have also alerted sanctuary managers and other authorities to oil and tarball events and the deaths of large numbers of seabirds or marine mammals (called mortality incidents).
American author Mark Twain is oft credited with the quip that “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” If your plans include beating the heat with a sojourn to central California this season, consider spending a day at the sanctuary’s “green” redesigned visitor center, which offers a wide variety of exhibits and programs for ocean lovers of all ages.
Located in the picturesque old Coast Guard station at historic Crissy Field in the Presidio of San Francisco, the visitor center is open Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is free to the public.
Stellar sea lions, one of several endangered species making a comeback in the Gulf of the Farallones.