Works in Progress - Spring 2016

Mapping a Hard Place

By Chloe Taft | February 29, 2016
Maps for Good
Maps for Good


The Farallon Islands, 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, are within the city limits of San Francisco, but unlike most national wildlife refuges, the rocky archipelago is closed to the public. Two young mapmakers are collaborating with researchers to create a web-based interactive map that tells the story of this 104-acre chain. “We can’t bring the public to the islands, so we’re going to bring the islands to the public,” explains Marty Schnure, cofounder with Ross Donihue of Maps for Good.

Since 1968, biologists from Bay Area–based Point Blue Conservation Science have monitored the islands’ wildlife, including a resurgent migration of elephant seals. Once near extinction, these seals and other pinnipeds come to the islands during the winter to give birth. In the spring, the granite rocks become a nesting spot for seabirds. Isolated from human contact—even the half-dozen scientists must walk only on designated paths—Farallon wildlife serves as a barometer of ocean health.

Schnure and Donihue spent three weeks on the remote Farallones. “The overall sense there is that humans are visitors,” Donihue says. He and Schnure say their digital map will include clickable, geo-referenced visual and audio annotations about various sites and ongoing research.

Maps for Good is also creating a short film promoting Point Blue’s conservation work and a new printable map that scientists can use for research notes. Both the digital map and the film will be available on Point Blue’s website in May.

The Farallon Islands jut out of the Pacific Ocean 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco. Although the 140-acre National Wildlife Refuge is closed to visitors other than scientists and the occasional marathon swimmer, the islands have had their share of visitors. Below, a brief history.

  • Pre-exploration: American Indians in the Bay Area call the archipelago “Islands of the Dead” and rarely visit them. (Jan Rolletto/NOAA)

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