Alcatraz’s natural side surprises tour visitors

SAN FRANCISCO— Without a care in the world, eager guests stand in line for a tour of what some people think is one of the most haunted places in the world, Alcatraz Island, while the actuality of sitting on a ferry boat coasting through what appears to image strange, darkly-colored waters in a horror movie, is but a step away.

On an up-close-and-personal visit to the island, these guests are interested in more than what lies inside the doors of the famous prison.

Alcatraz Island hosts thousands of visitors each day who tour the prison and see the plant and animal life (Photos by Kaci Fowler). Below, a Western Gull is one of many birds at Alcatraz Island. There are numerous bird colonies to observe. Plants thrive in the sea air at Alcatraz Island. The natural ecosystem at There are seven gardens that require staff maintenance.

Guests snap photographs of the short cruise and capture the image of the distant Alcatraz Island on their small digital cameras, while smiling children are dressed in faux Alcatraz prison jumpsuits and teenagers finish off popcorn and candy before boarding the boat.

“While standing in line, I feel anxious and nervous at the same time. I’ve never been to Alcatraz and I am interested to see what it is all about,” Gale Marner, a tourist from Texas, said.

The image of the distant island, with its formidable structures resting atop lush vegetation is an image that most visitors would not expect. Tourists and locals alike are welcomed to Alcatraz Island, where even seabirds enjoy the legendary and unforgettable attraction.

Alcatraz is much more than a prison tour. Visitors don’t often realize it, but there is a living and vital ecosystem on the island complete with several thriving species of animals and a wide range of plants that have turned the isolated island into so much more since the years it housed hundreds of the nation’s most dangerous criminals.

“The amount of beautiful animals and plants on the island is unbelievable, it’s just not something you think that you will seen at a prison,” Cassie Martinez, a tourist from California, said excitedly.

Upon arrival at Alcatraz Island, the calls of western gulls, snow egrets and Canadian geese loudly fill the air. “America’s Devil Island” as it is called, provides visitors with an angelic outdoor experience equipped with roses, fig trees, colorful succulents and some of the most rare and exotic plants and animals from around the world.

The gardens of Alcatraz, closely manicured by the hands of residents and prisoners long before the prison closed in 1963, offers visitors a rich history of the beauty that was used to lift the spirits of the residents of Alcatraz many years ago.

The seven gardens, home to more than 230 species of plants and seven species of seabirds, are not all open for visitation as each has its own unique history, but the beauty of each has managed to transform the “ugliness” of the island into one of peaceful serenity, drawing tourists from all over.

“The gardens at Alcatraz are truly some of the most hidden treasures of the island and we take pride in maintaining the history that the families left in the gardens,” Betty Young, park nursery manager, said.

From the Rose Garden to the West Side Prisoner Gardens, the landscape provides an exclusive experience for tourists to experience the strange beauty that the island possesses.

“I definitely didn’t expect to see such beautiful gardens at Alcatraz, of all places,” Rachel Liner, tourist from Florida said. While Alcatraz boasts its eye-opening inescapable experience, it is the landscape that tourists such as Rachel find to be absolutely breathtaking.

The ironic atmosphere of Alcatraz consisting of fresh air, beautiful plants and friendly rangers, makes tourists question its reputation as one of the most feared attractions in the world.

From the icy waters to the tales of ghost sightings and prisoner stories on the island, it almost seems as if  a single soul would not want to live in the famed, “cold, damp and tedious place,” where no one is known to have escaped, not even the “Birdman.”

When most people think about Alcatraz, they quickly think about one of the most famous prisoners, Robert Stroud, better known as “The Birdman of Alcatraz” and highlighted in a major 1962 film starring Burt Lancaster. The Birdman’s, strange affinity for birds has certainly left a legacy on the island as thousands of birds flock to their “island home” to relax or perhaps to pay homage to the renowned criminal.

Although Stroud’s cell is not open to the public, if you are lucky, a pleasant tour guide may offer you the chance to visit it and learn more about the mysterious presence of the birds of the island.

“You know you have accomplished something when you can get something to grow on the rock,” Young tells tourists.

The “Rock,” which was once home to some of the most violent individuals in the world, seems to possess a hidden beauty within the fauna and the exotic animals that reside there.

There is obviously something hidden in the rock of Alcatraz that allows for the growth of the most beautiful plants in the world.

For the birdwatchers, the seven species of seabirds that exists on the island are a must- see event. Pigeon guillemots, black-crowned night herons, pelagic  commorants, and western and California gulls all benefit from the atmosphere of the Island and appear as guards as they fly around the penitentiary throughout the day.

“Everywhere I look, the scenery is absolutely amazing. It seems like there must be something about the history of the island that the plants only know about,” Caren Moore, tourist from Texas said.

It may be hard to believe that Alcatraz is a safe haven for animals such as seabirds that have made the Island their nesting site, or that it is now an environmentally conscious place. But from the time visitors enter the boat, they are met with economically friendly conditions, on the “nation’s first hybrid boat,” according to Tegan Firth, Alcatraz Cruises public relations manager.

“Alcatraz Cruises provides boats that are battery powered and are very environmentally conscious. We feel it is our duty to be conscious since so many people visit the Island via our boats each day. In the future we hope to offer environmental programs at Alcatraz and are constantly researching different ways to be environmentally conscious,” Firth added.

Stephen Gehre, tour guide for Alcatraz Island Cruises, also believes that “Climate change has a lot to do with the green initiatives on the island.”

Through the sightings of the natural ecosystems on the island, it becomes apparent why birds of all kinds enjoy it so much. Wading in tide pools and nesting in bird colonies, the seabirds of Alcatraz call the mysterious land a home of their own.

Alcatraz Island is a protected home of water birds and other small animals such as deer mice, salamanders and slugs. We make it our duty to make sure the animals are safe and provide a place where they can freely roam,” Gehre added.

Deer mice are the only mammals that inhabit the bizarre lands of Alcatraz, which is one of the main reasons guests are not allowed to bring food on the island in order to protect them from being trapped in materials such as plastic.

“The funny thing is that I came to the island for the landscape and the large seabirds. My children love birds and flowers and I thought it would be a great way for them to experience the atmosphere of Alcatraz, which is like no other place they have ever visited,” Mary Benson, a San Francisco native, excitedly explained.

If you take a look at the small tidal pools at Alcatraz, you may even spot a few slugs resting on the mud, or while walking around the island, you may witness distinctly colored salamanders feeding on wood.

“The thing I find most strange about Alcatraz is the fact that landscape is so beautiful. On almost every tour I give, tourists point out different plants and animals before pointing out unusual carvings or even the sign at the entrance of the island, ‘All Indians Welcome,’ ” Gehre added.

Through its mysterious reputation, Alcatraz Island provides a beautiful atmosphere for animals and birds alike and introduces tourists to an attraction that is rich in the legacy and history of the residents and prisoners of the island.




If You Go:

The Alcatraz Cruise is the official ferry ride to Alcatraz Island. It offers four tours all of which the first ferry leaves at 9 a.m. and the last ferry returns to the dock at 6:30 p.m.

The four tours include the Early Bird Tour, Day Tour, Night Tour and the Alcatraz and Angel Island Tour.

The Early Bird and Day tours are offered daily for $26. The night tour is offered Thursday-Monday for $33, and the Alcatraz and Angel Island Tour is offered at select times of the year for $58.

Generally, a tour of the island takes about two hours, however guests cans spend as much time as they wish. Food is not allowed on the island. The cruise is located at Pier 33. Guests are encouraged to take a taxi or walk to the pier. For more information on the tours, please visit or call 415-981-7625.

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