This Cluster Of U.S. Islands Is Off-Limits To Humans – And These Are The Reasons Why

This Cluster Of U.S. Islands Is Off-Limits To Humans – And These Are The Reasons Why

Slightly under 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco, on the edge of the vast Pacific Ocean, sits a wild and windswept archipelago known as the Farallon Islands. But while seabirds and seals thrive here, these remote outcrops – also known as the Farallones – are hiding a dark secret. Humans, you see, are barred from setting foot on these lonely shores.

Deadly reputations

So what exactly is it that makes the Farallones a no-go zone? And why do those brave enough to make the crossing risk life and limb to do so? These islands, it turns out, have a long and brutal past, developing a deadly reputation long before the U.S. government declared them off-limits. 

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Few daring visitors

On a good day, the Farallones can be spotted from San Francisco, an ominous speck on the horizon out past the Golden Gate Bridge. But despite their proximity to the city, the rocky islands remain firmly off the tourist radar. In fact, just a handful of brave visitors make the trip across the Pacific breakers to them every year. Indeed, most people are not allowed to venture ashore.

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Wildlife rules

Today, most people keep well away from the Farallones, aware of the lethal reputation that surrounds these jagged towers of rock. And in their absence, wildlife rules supreme across this desolate and abandoned place. So what is it about the archipelago that keeps visitors at a distance? And how did it come to be regarded as such a sinister place?

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Deceptively close

Despite their remote and rugged feel, the Farallones can hardly be considered an exotic or far-flung destination. In fact, the journey to and from San Francisco takes about four hours each way in a typical sailing vessel. But don’t let the relative accessibility of these islands deceive you: they are generally considered among the most dangerous on Earth.

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Long-standing notoriety

According to some, the history of the Farallones as a dark and sinister place stretches back to before the Europeans arrived. Reportedly, the indigenous inhabitants of the region referred to them as the “Islands of the Dead” and refused to set foot on their haunted shores. Of course, it may have been simply practical considerations that kept them away from the archipelago – but we might never know for sure.

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First documented stop

All that changed, though, in 1579 when Sir Francis Drake and his crew disembarked on the Farallones. En route to the mainland, they stopped at the archipelago to stock up on eggs and meat – from sea birds and seals – before continuing their journey. But it would be another two centuries before humans would settle on the island.

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Ominous presence

Looking at the Farallones today, it is easy to understand why early colonists might have given them a wide berth. Named after the Spanish word for cliff, they loom out of the entrance to San Francisco Bay, creating an ominous shadow on the horizon. And the islands don’t just look spooky, either – they’re guarding a number of dark secrets that have kept humans away for generations.

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Early residents

According to reports, the first humans to establish a permanent home on the Farallones were fur traders from Russia and the U.S. in the early 1800s. But before long, these settlers had decimated the wildlife that once thrived on these islands. And by the time that the Gold Rush arrived in California, the seal colonies had disappeared.

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The island’s goods

In the mid-19th century gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada mountains some 130 miles inland from San Francisco. As people flocked to the Bay Area, supply chains were overwhelmed and the city’s inhabitants were forced to look further afield for food. Soon, their eyes turned to the Farallones and the islands’ ready supply of sea bird eggs.

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Violent conflict

Was the gruesome period that followed a hint of the sinister things to come? Motivated by the promise of a hefty paycheck, scores of men made their way out to the Farallones to gather eggs. But a violent conflict soon broke out between different parties, resulting in a number of unfortunate deaths.

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The Eggs Wars

While the struggle known as the Egg Wars eventually petered out, the trade continued on the archipelago until it was banned in the early 1880s. By that point, a lighthouse had been constructed on the main island of the Farallones. And even when the scavengers returned to the mainland, a small population of keepers remained.

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Military base

As the years passed, more buildings were constructed on the Farallones, including a long-range radio station and Navy base. And according to the San Francisco website Curbed, there were almost 80 people living on the islands during World War II. As the setting for a secret radar facility, it may well have played a significant role in the fight against the Axis powers.

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Abandoning the island

The wartime years, though, would turn out to be the pinnacle of human habitation in the Farallones. As the conflict drew to a close, Navy personnel left the islands and the population began to plummet. The Curbed article noted that in 1965 the remaining families also took their leave, leaving just half a dozen people behind to operate the lighthouse.

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Scientist take over

Eventually, in the early 1970s, even this facility ceased operation. But by that point, scientists had arrived on the Farallones, keen to observe the wildlife that lived there. And since then, a small population of researchers have eked out an existence on these tiny islands out in the open sea that guards the mouth of San Francisco Bay.

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No public guests

Aside from the scientists, who inhabit an old 19th-century building on the main island, few humans ever visit the Farallones. But why is it such a lonely place? Surely, you would think, the archipelago’s location would make it a prime destination for day trippers looking to escape San Francisco for the day?

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Daring swim

But there are a number of reasons why humans tend to steer well clear of the Farallones. And even when they do visit, it’s often regarded as quite the achievement. Take the journey of Kim Chambers, for example, an athlete who decided to tackle what’s considered one of the world’s most dangerous swims. 

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Attempting the journey

According to a 2017 interview in British newspaper The Guardian, Chambers began open water swimming after an accident left her struggling to walk. And after conquering a series of challenging straits across the globe, the San Francisco resident decided on a more local challenge. In August 2015 she set out to cover the 30-odd miles from the Farallones back to the mainland.

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No plans to return

“It sounds completely nuts, but when I went to the Farallones, I prepared not to come back,” Chambers told The Guardian. “I did my laundry because I wanted my place to be decent when they came to collect my stuff.” So what was it about these islands that made the challenge so perilous? And why have people kept away for so many years?

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Rocky surroundings

Part of the answer, it seems, can be found in the waters surrounding the Farallones. As it turns out, the jagged rocks and rough seas have claimed a number of lives over the years. In fact, historians believe that early settlers were so intent on avoiding the dangerous archipelago that they didn’t discover San Francisco Bay for another 200 years.

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Taking down ships

As the years have passed, the Farallones have not grown any safer. For example, in 1921 the U.S.S. Conestoga sank in the perilous waters off the islands with the loss of all 56 hands. For decades, its fate remained a mystery until researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spotted the wreck some 190 feet beneath the surface.

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Gone without a trace

More recently in January 2007 data scientist Jim Gray set out from San Francisco on board a private yacht to scatter his mother’s ashes near the Farallones. When he never returned, an extensive search was launched – but no sign of him or his ship were ever recovered. Somewhere near this mysterious archipelago, he had vanished without a trace.

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Special equipment required

Today, it is considered too dangerous to even attempt to land on the islands. And in the absence of a harbor, scientists in residence use a large crane to hoist boats filled with supplies onto the shore. But it’s not just the choppy conditions that prevent anyone but a few hardy swimmers from venturing into the waves off the Farallones.

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Dense wildlife

These islands sit within an area known as the Red Triangle: a region that stretches out across the Pacific from the north Californian coast. According to experts, it is home to a particularly dense population of marine mammals such as sea lions, sea otters and seals. And this, in turn, attracts a large amount of great white sharks.

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Shark attacks

In fact, the Red Triangle boasts one of the greatest concentrations of these fearsome predators on Earth. And while attacks on humans off the Farallones are rare, scientists on the islands are all too aware of their deadly nature. Speaking to TV station NBC Bay Area in 2011 one researcher based in a lookout said, “You can tell shark attacks up here. Obviously if there’s blood, but also the gulls will start congregating.”

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Great white shark haven

Amazingly, the presence of great white sharks has not stopped the odd thrill-seeker such as Chambers from taking the plunge into the icy waters. And some, it seems, are even drawn to the islands to observe the predators in their natural habitat. But for most visitors, the telltale fins circling the island would certainly give them pause for thought. 

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Hunting right off-shore

“We’ve seen attacks right out here,” researcher Russ Bradley told NBC Bay Area. “Just a few feet from shore.” Less than two weeks before Chambers embarked on her death-defying adventure, another swimmer was forced out of the water by a great white shark. And three years later in 2018 one man diving near the Farallones was bitten savagely on the arm by a 17-foot monster. 

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Lethal oil slicks

In a terrifying twist, though, it’s not just the sharks and the rough seas that have rendered the Farallones mostly out of bounds. According to the Golden Gate Audubon Society, a local conservation group, the islands have long been plagued by oil slicks that drench and kill the native birds.

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Dumping radioactive waste

Then, at the close of World War II, a new pollutant found its way into the waters off the Farallones. In a paper published by the U.S. Geological Society, researchers claim that some 47,800 containers were dumped in the area between 1946 and 1970. But this was no ordinary trash – it was radioactive waste.

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Sinking a nuclear ship

And that’s not the only toxic dumping ground associated with the Farallones. Back in 1946 the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Independence was exposed to multiple U.S. military nuclear weapons tests. Afterwards, the ship’s radioactive hull was towed to the islands off San Francisco, where it was scuttled with torpedoes and left to sink to the ocean floor.

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Toxic seas

Even today, though, rumors persist that the Independence was loaded with even more radioactive waste before the sinking. And according to the local newspaper SF Weekly, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this was just the tip of the iceberg. So if the deadly animals and brutal rocks don’t put you off, then, the toxic seas just might.

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Preserving the habitat

Today, the Farallones’ fearsome reputation has earned them the nickname the Devil’s Teeth. But despite the harsh reality of life on these islands, there have been a number of attempts to preserve them for future generations. Indeed, in 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt announced the formation of a protected reserve comprising the north and middle sections of the archipelago. 

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Limiting visitors

Close to seven decades later in 1974 the Farallon Wilderness Area was established, banning humans from setting foot anywhere except the main island. And apart from a select group of permitted researchers who remain on the archipelago, the few visitors that make the trek across from San Francisco must observe the rocky outcrop from afar. 

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Dangerous trip

Today, some San Francisco tour operators run trips out to the islands, allowing visitors to observe the wildlife that still thrives here – despite apparently radioactive waters. But even these are not easy journeys. Speaking to The New York Times newspaper in 2016 writer Bonnie Tsui recalled how she was instructed to “come dressed for the moon,” during one visit. 

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Worth the struggle

That journey, it seems, was plagued by seasickness and icy winds – conditions that must have plagued visitors to the Farallones for centuries. But according to Tsui, there was plenty to make the trip worthwhile. On the way out, the passengers followed in the wake of humpback whales, before spotting rare sea birds and elephant seals on the islands themselves.

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Rare sighting

In fact, despite their hostility to human life, the Farallones have become something of a haven for rare creatures. On Tsui’s visit, for example, she spotted a single gannet, the first bird of its kind known to have made its home in Pacific waters. Typically, they live in the North Atlantic, but experts believe that this one got lost and decided to stay.

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Modern success story

As it turns out, the Farallones may be one of modern conservation’s success stories. While the egg-hunters of the 19th century left the islands’ fragile ecosystems decimated, many creatures have begun to return. Perversely, it seems, the lack of recent human activity on the archipelago may well have helped its animal residents to thrive.

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Thriving bird population

 According to Utah TV network KSL News, the Farallones were home to some 600,000 sea birds known as murres before the Gold Rush took hold. But by 1930 that number had dropped to fewer than five. Now, there are almost 200,000 of them on the islands, sharing the skies and land with any number of rare creatures. 

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Wild sanctuary

In other words, dangers such as deadly sharks, perilous waters and radioactive waste seem only to deter humans from the Farallones. And, so far at least, the nuclear dumping grounds do not appear to have adversely affected the animal population. Perhaps, then, this forbidden wilderness might remain a sanctuary for many years to come?

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A rough wonderland

For people like Chambers, meanwhile, the wild and remote nature of the Farallones is what makes it appealing. Speaking to The Guardian, she described her first swims off the islands as like a “wonderland.” She said, “We would go out there and jump in like it was some tropical destination, and fishermen would look at us like we were absolutely crazy. It became a place of pushing myself.”

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