It’s one of the most biologically rich and wild aquatic environments in the world and it’s just offshore from San Francisco. The Gulf of the Farallones supports a wide array of charismatic sea life, including grey, humpback and enormous blue whale, the largest animals ever to live on earth. Orcas and great white sharks thrive there too. In the midst of the Gulf, just a couple of dozen miles from San Francisco’s busy streets, a few rocky islands claw out of the rough seas and attract nesting birds by the thousands and colonies of elephant seals seeking refuge to breed and to nurture their young. The Farallon Islands are off-limits to casual visitors, but we were permitted to visit in the company of scientists who study and keep watch on this extraordinary outpost of nature. This time, we came in the winter when the elephant seals crowded the beaches. I had been once before to the Farallones during the summer when gulls and other sea birds seemed to darken the sky. Both trips were among the most memorable I have ever had in northern California. Though you won’t be able to go ashore on the islands, the Oceanic Society can take you close on its whale-watching trips. The swells can be high, but if you think you can keep seasickness in check, I strongly urge you to make the trip. You’ll encounter a wilderness made more vulnerable and precious by its close proximity to so many of us.