Skip to main content

He knows what seas are like at the islands

Russell Bradley has spent more than 1,400 nights on Southeast Farallon Island, so he knows just how rough the seas are out there and how unpredictable the waves can be.

Russell Bradley, a biologist who spends weeks at a time on the Farallon Islands, says seas can build to more than 20 feet.

“It depends on the day,” says Bradley, a 36-year-old biologist, who for 10 years has been spending six weeks at a time on the island to observe the bird and sea life.

“When you have a big northwest wind you get big swells and you have large, breaking seas for several hundred feet out along the whole western side of the island.”

Those breaking waves bounce back off the rocky shoreline, he says, creating very confused seas — what others have described as a “washing machine” effect. In addition to steering clear of these breakers, boaters must keep their eyes peeled for big, breaking boomers that come out of the blue way beyond the breaker line, he says. Beyond the outer continental shelf, six miles west of the Farallones, the ocean plunges to a depth of 6,000 feet. As swells from across the Pacific leave the abyss behind and start rolling over the shelf, they become steeper, more unstable and closer together — a dangerous adversary for the unwary mariner. “Occasionally you get very large waves, and they’ll catch you by surprise,” Bradley warns.

Twenty-five-knot winds and 8- to 10-foot swells are typical in the spring. Winter storms can blow 45 knots and kick up seas larger than 20 feet. “You can get really nasty conditions,” he says. “We’re always trying to make sure we don’t get ourselves into bad situations.”

The Farallones are a cluster of granite outcroppings popularly known as “The Devil’s Teeth.” Twenty-eight miles off San Francisco, they are a protected habitat for the largest seabird-breeding colony in the continental United States. Farallon National Wildlife Refuge is home to 12 species of seabirds — 300,000 in all — and five species of seals and sea lions, as well as sea turtles, whales and great white sharks. Bradley says the islands owe their abundance of birds, marine mammals and sea life to the upwelling of cold water from the Pacific depths at the edge of the continental shelf. The cold water, with its rich soup of nutrients and krill, feeds these species.

In the spring, the southeast side of the island — the lee side — is the place to be if you’re on a boat, Bradley says. “It’s protected from the northwest winds and the northwesterly swells.”

Bradley and other biologists come out to the island on 38- to 40-foot boats, often sailboats, provided and skippered by volunteers. They tie up to a buoy on the island’s southeast side while a crane on land lowers a sturdy inflatable into the water to motor out and pick up the scientists. The docking operation is the reverse of the launch operation: The crane lifts the inflatable with scientists and their provisions still aboard and deposits them on the uplands. “A dock would never last out there,” Bradley says.
PRBO Conservation Science, Bradley’s employer, has been monitoring wildlife on Southeast Farallon for 40 years. It is a remote, rugged, challenging place to live and work. “It takes the right kind of person to enjoy it out there,” he says.

See related articles:

- Safety rules could change in wake of race accident

- Sailors may have crashed into cliffs

- US Sailing panels examine the accidents

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue.