Saturday, July 26, 2008

An Unexpected Visitor

This is my first, and hopefully not last, summer as a seabird research assistant on the Farallones. Since I have been here, many of my loved ones have commented on how small the realm of existence is for my fellow researchers and me. A camera pan of a few seconds from the top of the lighthouse pretty much covers the areas into which we are allowed to venture. Not that there is a shortage of things to do, or that life is ever boring here; I, for one, have never felt boxed in or stir-crazy. However, when we see something on or near our isolated island that is out of the ordinary in any way, things tend to screech to a halt until that particular mystery has been solved.

Well, that is exactly what happened back in May when we sighted an unusual craft approaching the island. It was a slightly overcast but relatively calm afternoon near the end of May, just when the seabird breeding season is reaching peak activity. We had just finished a Cassin’s auklet check and everyone had split up to finish our respective tasks for the day. All of a sudden, a small boat was sighted from the east side of the island. This boat was not only tiny, but seems to be lacking motor and sail, and the crew apparently consists of one person. To top it off, the boat was inching, slowly but surely, to the northeast under the power of two oars. Near some islands of the world, this might be a natural occurrence, but Southeast Farallon Island (SEFI) is not one of these. This part of the California coast is known for having rough weather and supply runs on much larger and sturdier boats are often delayed or cancelled altogether. So, you can imagine what the conditions would be like for a boat small enough for someone to row.

Thus, someone rowing alone anywhere near SEFI must clearly be in trouble, suicidal, or just plain crazy. Since none of these conditions is ideal for anyone, we isolated biologists were faced with two choices:
1) Ignore this unusual boat, even though boats come to the island only once every two weeks, call the Coast Guard, and let them handle it.
2) Hop in our boat and go to see what in the world is going on.
As you can probably imagine, we chose the latter. SEFI biologists Russ and Pete launched the SAFE boat and whizzed after the vessel that was still ponderously gliding away from the island. Soon, it became clear for those of us waiting excitedly on the “mainland” that the woman rowing the boat was no crazier than the rest of us, but on a well-planned expedition to row across the Pacific Ocean, having already conquered the Atlantic.

Roz Savage is her name, and her vessel is the 23-foot long, 6-foot wide Brocade.
As daunting as her task was, Roz greeted Pete and Russ with a smile, turning down her audio book (Charles Dickens) to exchange pictures and contact information with our awestruck biologists. Although she declined an offered beer, Roz accepted some M&Ms, bananas, and trail mix that we rushed to take back out to her. I was actually able to go on that second ride out, and the Brocade was something to behold. Weighed down with about two tons of gear, equipped with various satellite dishes, weather indicators, and solar panels, and with two sealed cabins fore and aft, this boat is especially built for a difficult ocean voyage. As a member of the rowing team in college, I recognized the sliding seat and stationary shoes, also present in a regular racing shell, that allow a person to power a boat using mainly their quadriceps. I also remembered how horrendously grueling a 2000 meter rowing test was, and my respect for this intrepid woman who planned to row an almost incalculable amount more- without the support of teammates- increased.

As amazing as the logistics of Roz Savage’s journey are, the “why” of them is perhaps even more so. By doing something so unusually, mind-bogglingly strenuous, Roz hopes to raise awareness of the plight of the world’s oceans as well as take control of her own life. If she happens to inspire others to stretch themselves to the best of their ability in whatever they do, so much the better. In trying to set an example in her living on and off the water, her goals are not too different from ours here on the Farallones. Though our efforts lie in building a knowledge base rather than the outreach end of things, our way of life may seem as extreme as hers to some people. Brief though our contact was before she rowed off into the wild blue, I know everyone who saw her felt privileged at being able to meet such a unique individual.

The Roz encounter, though unusual, highlights a typical day on the island in some ways. As regimented as our lives out here are, there is always the chance for the unexpected, the unusual, or the just plain crazy to arrive out of the blue and remind us that anything can happen on the Farallones.

To find out more about Roz’s ongoing journey and her mission, go to her blog at Look for us in the May 26th entry. Photos in this blog are courtesy of

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Farallones, 40 years later.

In 1968, when PRBO first established the Farallon Island Research Station, the intent was to make this a long term project. Who could have imagined how successful it has been!

I (Ron LeValley) was fortunate to be a part of that first summer. At the end of the seabird season and the beginning of the land bird migration, I arrived on the island on August 21 with Dr. Richard Mewaldt to give Buddy Roberts, the first Farallon Biologist, his first break. It was a turning point in my career; and many of us seabird biologists can say that. The Farallones have possibly inspired more seabird biologist than any other location in North America and I feel fortunate to be one of them. I feel even more fortunate to be out here for a two week visit 40 years later! Of course, a lot of things have changed, and a lot of things have stayed the same.

What has changed? Well, for one thing I am typing this on a computer and will post this on the blog tonight via an internet connection. In 1968 we had one CB radio for mainland communication to the Palomarin headquarters. If the reception was poor, as it often was, we could sometimes go next door and use the Coast Guard radio. Our transportation was dependent on the Coast Guard -- when they transferred their Light Station personnel back and forth we were allowed to tag along. At first we got badges for our trip on the Buoy Tender that identified us as VIP (Very Important Passengers), but that didn’t last long!

There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of rabbits on the islands that summer. At any one time there were three or four in sight over much of the island. The removal of the rabbits in the late 1960’s probably led to the resurgence of the Rhinoceros Auklet population. In 1968 we pretty much did not see this species, and now as I walk around the island at night, it is everywhere. Common Murres, Western Gulls and Brandt’s Cormorants have also increased in great part to the increased protection of the island by PRBO and Fish and Wildlife Service staff. The Brown Pelican has also increased dramatically. In 1968, DDT and its related compounds were threatening the very existence of our west coast population. During August of 1968, I saw one individual on one day! Later in September we did see as many as 500 on Sugarloaf and West end. Now they are being taken off the endangered species list and are so numerous that they have almost taken over the California Gull colony (see blog of May 20) as they arrive after breeding down in southern California and Mexico. We counted over 800 the other day and their numbers will increase dramatically as the summer turns to fall. These are great success stories.
One species that seems less common is the Cassin’s Auklet. The Cassin’s population may still be depressed from the massive breeding failure of 2005 & 2006, but the resurgence of the Rhinoceros Auklet population may also have displaced some of the Cassin’s. Such is life on a crowded seabird colony.

The seals and sea lions have also dramatically increased in numbers. In August of 1968, Dick Mewaldt and I counted 183 California Sea Lions on Southeast Farallon. Later in September we saw 6-10 Steller’s Sea Lions and one Harbor Seal. Last week Pete and I counted over 2,500 California Sea Lions, 121 Steller’s Sea Lions, 60 Harbor Seals and 33 Northern Fur Seals. And of course, that doesn’t count the Elephant Seals, who are here in lower numbers at this time of year, but in 1968 we were excited to find 7 on what is now known as Mirounga Beach!

In 1976 and 1977 when I worked as a Farallon Biologist, the Coast Guard had removed their full time personnel from the island and left the daily maintenance to PRBO. I remember spending many days working on the generators and even changing the light bulb in the lighthouse. Now much of that is automated, and the equipment is much improved. The station is run almost entirely on solar energy, there is a gray water system for the toilets and there is even a telephone in the house! Oh, and the foghorn is gone. I don’t miss that!

What hasn’t changed is the dedication of the PRBO staff, volunteers, and interns. Incredible work is being done to unravel the mysteries of the seabirds, marine mammals and their ocean habitat, the California Current. We still count and band birds, we still watch to see what kind of fish and other prey the birds bring to their chicks, and this information still is a vital part of our interpretation of the California marine environment. I feel privileged to have been a part of the development of this station and to visit it again this year.

P.S. For more pictures of my trip out here this year, you can visit my web site at and look at the months of June and July.