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Night Crawler 

To the Farallones

Wednesday, Jan 12 2000
To the Farallones
There have been occasions, while traveling over great expanses of water, when I have been overwhelmed by a feeling of monstrous dread, a sort of Sartrian nausea caused by the absolute immensity of the deep. It comes over me only when the sky and sea are close in color, as can often happen in this area of the world, and when the water is very calm. Something about that gray-green water when it's nearly still, so smooth and impenetrable, stretching farther than sight, rolling and heaving like the inky flesh of some outrageous beast, is a little spooky.

Today, the Coast Guard has indeed called the ocean "glassy," but this is a happy adjective aboard the Oceanic Society Expeditions' 63-foot vessel; the water around the Farallon Islands is known to be some of the roughest in the world. Leaving San Francisco Bay is like a dream. A delicate gold mist clings to the shore as we shoot under the sun-drenched Golden Gate, and a large brown pelican catches a wind current, trailing us with lazy accuracy that rarely involves moving its 70-inch wing span. Above the low rumble of our engine, there is silence.

A couple of hours out, we catch sight of two dark harbor seals racing in front of us, then an ocean sunfish that someone estimates at 800 pounds. Seemingly unstartled, the rotund sunfish remains at a shallow depth, swimming in tight circles that allow us to edge the boat closer, close enough to see the damage inflicted by a recent attack -- probably by a sea lion -- that deprived the fish of its right fin. Exhausted and doomed, the fish swims in diminishing rings while downy jellyfish collect nearby in phosphorescent portents.

Jason Russey, a 21-year-old deckhand with nearly a decade of experience, happily recalls a day when a humpback whale pushed the boat with its nose, purposefully spraying the folks on starboard side. A short-tailed shearwater, relative of the albatross, skims over the water, following the rainbows in our wake, and a few minutes later, we begin to notice hundreds of birds floating between the hills and valleys of the water's surface, evidence of our close proximity to the bustling fishing community that floats offshore every morning. Our skipper hails those he knows, gets news, and maneuvers through the intricate neighborhood of nets and lines.

The fog is not listless on the ocean; it is unequivocal, a dark, clammy curtain that envelops our craft. On deck, folks hustle to put on coats and gloves; others squeeze down below in the hopes that it will break up, but it won't. The crew doesn't budge.

"It's always like this out here," says Russey.

Janet Kirk, a retired social worker from Oakland, keeps her seat in the elements, oblivious to the chilling ocean spray. After three Alaskan cruises on the World Explorer, she's accustomed to worse, and, if nothing else, the fog helps keep the wind down.

"Even in the cold, it's very serene," says Kirk, peering into the gray powdery shroud. "I guess it just gives you a chance to be within yourself. Anything I see out here is really an added bonus, but I'm always an optimist."

The Farallon Islands are jagged, inhospitable chunks of granite rising out of a jagged, inhospitable sea. The islands are part of the marine terrace, the last piece of land between us and Japan, and there is nothing to buffer the cold winds that rise over the horizon and slap the islands' rock faces. The cantankerous climate notwithstanding, the Farallones support the largest and most diverse seabird rookery on the Pacific Coast south of Alaska. American Indians used small canoes to paddle out to the islands' egg fields; at one point the San Francisco Egg Co. was established here, serving seabird eggs to Gold Rushers, among others. The islands also aided a booming seal pelt business, and previously, there was a Russian military base where sea lion jerky was considered healthy ration. At one time, the Farallon lighthouse, which is now automated, was manned by a single man, but after numerous suicides, whole families were moved out to the rocks. (According to Russey, lighthouse-keeping adults usually did OK, but the children were changed by their stark environment, and reintroduction to the mainland was rough going.) In the 1800s, after seabird and sealskin trade resulted in the virtual elimination of northern elephant seals, northern fur seals, common murres, Cassin's auklets, and tufted puffins from the California coast, the islands became the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, and the Coast Guard faced daily altercations with poachers and pickers. Boating restrictions make landing on the islands illegal (scientists doing research must be pulled off the water by crane), and there are year-round speed and noise restrictions within 1,000 feet of all of the islands. Between March 15 and Aug. 15, a period encompassing the breeding season, vessel traffic is prohibited within 300 feet of most of the islands.

The Farallon Islands are startling to see firsthand, with their daunting natural archways that frame nothing but open sea, and the crumbling ruins of industry left on their shores like bombed-out war mementos. Out here, nine days of sun is the most you can expect in a year. Most of the cliff faces are stained white with guano and dappled with nests. The constant, relentless shrieking from the rookeries is deafening, even at a distance, and even over the smacking of waves. The stale, gamy reek of sea lion is carried on the wind and becomes overpowering long before their great, pendulous bodies come into view, a mass of dark hides butting and bellowing in a favored alcove.

Having sated our curiosity about the islands, the crew prepares for the real task at hand: safely delivering a researcher and his equipment to shore, while picking up two bird-loving carpenters who are headed back to the mainland.

A Boston whaler dangles from a crane hundreds of feet above the ocean; it holds the carpenters, who are lowered down a cliff face and then dropped unceremoniously in the ocean. Immediately, their tiny craft disappears behind a swell to re-emerge only occasionally during its arduous journey to our waiting vessel. The transfer of supplies and people is ridiculous and somewhat terrifying to the Farallon neophyte: In the split second when the tiny Boston whaler and the 60-plus-foot Oceanic Society craft are level, each passenger must leap across the large chasm of icy salt water between them. Even with the little whaler lashed to our boat, this rarely occurs as each craft plunges and rises on its own conflicting wave crest. Eventually, though, the trade is complete, the researcher blinking in and out of view on his way to the crane pickup at the island, and one of the carpenters saying with a grin of satisfaction, "Nice, smooth day."

On the way back, with all the excitement done, several passengers succumb to the ravaging rhythm of the Farallon waters and are barely able to lift their heads to watch the giant sea turtle and two seals that follow the boat. Nearing home, we finally catch sight of two tremendous humpback whales, engaged in an intricate ritual of rolling somersaults and water slapping for which our naturalist has no definite explanation.

"Just playing, I think," she says with a satisfied smile.

Nearing the Golden Gate channel, our skipper spots an exhausted windsurfer who has been blown past the point of return and calls the Coast Guard to pick him up. A little farther on, the captain receives a distress call from a friend whose engine has cut out with his boat sitting directly in the path of an incoming cargo ship. We change direction and rush off, arriving just in time to see the stalled engine sputter back to life with the cargo ship looming a very short distance away.

Almost nine hours after our departure, I am beaten. Russey is talking about going dancing.

"Hey, it's just a day on the water," he says. "It's no big deal, Night Crawler."

Oceanic Society Expeditions leave from San Francisco and Half Moon Bay every Saturday and Sunday through May 14; call 415-474-3385.

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Silke Tudor


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