Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jewel Cave Revealed

With ocean swells constantly pounding the island day and night, all year long, the intertidal zone on the Farallones is a harsh environment indeed. Nonetheless, a variety of tenacious plants and animals survive in this zone, and they are revealed during low tides. Only then can we observe the temporary pools left behind by the receeding waters on calm days. The stunning beauty of the tidepools is captured in names like "Jewel Cave" and "Pastel Cave."

Neon orange sponges, fuschia algaes, electric green anemones, and vivid purple sea urchins are part of the mindbogglingly colorful palette typically hidden deeper underwater. Pisasters patrol the pools feeding on mussels, and delicate hydroids filter plankton.

If we are lucky, we might spot a chitin clinging tightly to the wall of the pool.

Or a snail...

Or even a nudibranch.

The Farallon National Wildlife Refuge jurisdiction ends at the high-tide line. Therefore the inhabitants of the intertidal zone actually live in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. These hardy creatures are adapted to the turbulent natural environment of the intertidal region, but are vulnerable to an oil spill near the Farallones. As we learned from Cosco Busan, oil spills are still an unfortunate reality. Thousands of ships transit the area each year, and ship numbers are projected to double over the next decade.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Spring wildflowers on SEFI

Early spring is perhaps the most beautiful time of the year on Southeast Farallon Island as wildflowers burst into bloom, carpeting the island with lovely colors and sweet smells. The most abundant wildflower species here is the maritime goldfields (also known as Farallon weed) which covers a majority of the island. From the marine terrace to the top of Lighthouse Hill, the maritime goldfields form a thick carpet of vivid green and yellow. Purple and white sticky sand spurry blooms on rocky outcrops.

Other wildflowers found on SEFI include seaside daisy, marsh sand spurry, red maids, chickweed, miner's lettuce, pygmy stonecrop, and (non-native) fiddleneck.


Friday, March 07, 2008


Once an elephant seal cow is done nursing her pup, she mates with one or more of the dominant males and heads back out to sea, leaving her pup behind. The weaned pups live off their blubber, sleeping and playing with each other for a few months before venturing into the water for the first time to find food.

Some pups are able to suckle successfully from two females. Sometimes a cow will share her pup with another cow, or a weaned pup is adopted by a foster mother after the real mom has departed. Usually the foster mother has lost her own pup. These shared pups are called "superweaners" or "double mother suckers," and they typically grow much fatter than other pups. We had three superweaners in our Mirounga Beach colony this year, all males.

Colleen shared her pup with another cow. The other cow's pup washed out to sea during one of the big winter storms. Below is a picture of Colleen's weaner hauling himself out of Mirounga Beach.
Grasshopper's pup was adopted by a another cow after Grasshopper departed. The foster mother nursed him for an additional 12 days. He is the biggest weaner on the Farallones. In the second picture, he is stuck in a pile of driftwood that washed into Mirounga Beach after one of the big storms. He eventually worked his way out after being stuck there for two days.