Mapping the Mysterious Islands Near San Francisco

Cartographers Marty Schnure and Ross Donihue traveled to the little-known Farallon National Wildlife Refuge to document the scientists who live there and to create an interactive digital map to allow the public to explore the islands from afar.

The Farallon National Wildlife Refuge is closed to public access to protect this wildlife hot spot. “Immediately when you step onto the islands you realize the island belongs to the wildlife and we're just visitors here,” said Donihue. Schnure and Donihue are National Geographic grantees who have worked in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Point Blue Conservation Science (Point Blue) to do fieldwork on the Farallon Islands at multiple points over the last year.

Once they arrived at the island after a five-hour sail, they were able to get on shore with the help of a crane and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who manages the refuge. They were blown away by the wildlife. The Farallon National Wildlife Refuge is the largest seabird nesting colony in the lower 48 states. Over 300,000 birds nest on the islands each year. Elephant seals, fur seals, and sea lions populate the coast. “The seabirds and the marine mammals are the most conspicuous creatures on the island, but it's also home to an incredible intertidal community and endemic salamanders and endemic crickets,” said Schnure.

Other than the wildlife, there is a select group of skilled scientists who live on the Farallones. Scientists from Point Blue—the conservation group responsible for research on the islands—have conducted research every day since the 1960s. “The long-term data collection happening on the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge is critical for understanding our marine ecosystem. The biologists are discovering new findings related to climate change each season,” said Donihue. Working with the researchers is one of the most rewarding things about the work to the pair. “It has been such a privilege to be able to live with the biologists and document their work on the island this past year,” said Donihue. “When we are making maps of a place we believe it is crucial to spend time getting to know it and form lasting relationships with the individuals that know it best.”

The researchers’ dedication has been one of the more inspirational things Schnure has seen working on the islands. “There are a lot of people who would not thrive in that situation,” she said. The conditions are not exactly comfortable. It’s windy, noisy with all the sounds from hundreds of thousands of birds and marine mammals, and the researchers regularly get pooped on. There’s no source of freshwater on the Farallon Islands. The scientists rely a hundred percent on collecting rainwater. “It’s really important to conserve water, and part of that means everybody gets to shower only once every four days,” Schnure said.

“What you get are these individuals that are so smart, so friendly, so dedicated to this work, and that's an incredible thing to be a part of.” The researchers brought them to points all over the islands, as well as into caves where they had to shimmy through tight passageways, all while being careful not to disturb the wildlife. “It really feels like a family,” Schnure said.

When it’s not completely foggy or cloudy, Schnure and Donihue love to wake up early and catch first light in the morning. "You get this gorgeous view of the sun rising over San Francisco,” Schnure said. “It’s fun to sit there and imagine the city waking up, and to know that most of the people there don't even know that this island [exists], much less that there's this team of scientists out here 365 days of the year doing great research. It reminds me that that's why we're here … to capture those stories and the essence of this place so that we can bring it back to the mainland.” Schnure explained the bigger picture about conservation advocacy through their organization, Maps for Good. She said something that people ask them all the time related to this project is, “It's already a national wildlife refuge. It's already protected, so what are you advocating for?”

Schnure explained, “What we're advocating for is increased awareness of this place. Protected places need continual support in terms of funding really important long-term research, as well as defending the protection of these lands against threats from development.”

“The Farallones represent this true refuge, where these birds and marine mammals are left alone,” Schnure said. “It's a place where the wildlife reign supreme and the limited human activity is done in a way to minimize impacts on wildlife. Even though it's only 30 miles from the city, it feels worlds away from the mainland.”

You can learn more in a related video about how fur seals are making a comeback on the Farallon Islands.

And be sure to check out more from other National Geographic Society grantees in our digital series, Best Job Ever.

(Elephant seal research on the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge is conducted by trained professionals, under National Marine Fisheries Service Research Permit 17152-01.)

PRODUCER/EDITOR: Carolyn Barnwell
SERIES PRODUCERS: Chris Mattle and Jennifer Shoemaker
GRAPHICS: Chris Mattle
VIDEO: Ross Donihue and Marty Schnure