California Fool's Gold -- A Channel Islands Primer

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 20, 2013 02:49pm | Post a Comment

Foggy Day (Image credit: Lee Shurie for California Kayak Friends)

On planet Earth there are at least two archipelagos known as “The Channel Islands.” Frankly, I'd be somewhat surprised if there aren't more. One is located in an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates France and the UK known in English as “The English Channel” or simply “The Channel.” It's traversed (or is it subversed) by the Chunnel. Its eight Channel Islands are home to about 168,000.

The other Channel Islands are in an arm of the Pacific Ocean called the Santa Barbara Channel. Being located in California they are are often distinguished from their Atlantic counterparts by their being referred to as the Channel Islands of California. There are also eight islands in this archipelago although they’re only home to about 4,000 people. In some ways they have more in common with another archipelago, the Galapagos Islands of South America. Both developed in relative isolation which allowed for an independent evolutionary processes. In the Channel Islands' case, that process led to the development of at least 145 endemic species.

Last year my New Year’s resolution was to visit one or more of these islands. As with moth New Year's resolutions, I failed to meet it (just remembering it distinguishes it from most that I've made in the past). I changed my resolution with less than a month left of 2012 to the easier task of learning how to tie a bow tie in time for New Year’s Eve. This year, on my birthday, I visited Santa Catalina, which although often treated as somehow distinct from the Channel Islands, is in fact one of them. Here's hoping (but not resolving) that I visit more soon.


Tomol Crossing Sunrise (Image credit: Robert Schwemmer for Channel Islands Chumash)

I’ve wanted to visit the Channel Islands ever since learning of their existence -- probably around the time that my mother read Island of the Blue Dolphins to me. Whereas most of Los Angeles County (two of the Channel Islands are part of it) and Southern California are easily accessible by a variety of means including pubic and private transit, the Channel Islands are a bit more tricky (unless you have readily have in your possession a boat, helicopter, hovercraft, dirigible or other craft). Most people visit the islands via commercial and private boats, airplanes, or helicopters.


The California Channel Islands are generally divided into two groups, the Northern Group (consisting of Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa) and the Southern Group (consisting of San Clemente, San Nicolas, Santa Barbara, and Santa Catalina). They are also split among the jurisdictions of three bailiwicks – er, counties: Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Ventura. Their combined landmass is 896 square kilometers. Rather sadly, in most maps of those counties, these magnificent gems are either removed entirely or confined to disconnected corner boxes disconnected at reduced scale in a similar fashion to Alaska and Hawaii on maps of the USA.


Channel Islands Pygmy Mammoth sculpture at the California History Museum (Credit: Rhino Design Studio)

During the last ice age, because of lower sea levels, the four northernmost islands were conjoined into a single island separated from the mainland by a mere 8 kilometers. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of flightless geese, giant mice, and pygmy mammoths. The Channel Island Fox is believed to have rafted to the northern islands as early as 16,000 years ago and unlike the previous examples, isn't extinct. The foxes were likely brought to the southern islands by Native Americans, who arrived perhaps a couple of thousand years later.


Arlington Springs Bones (Image credit: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History)

In 1960, several bones from a 13,000 year-old skeleton were discovered and nicknamed the Arlington Springs Man (and sometimes the Arlington Springs Woman due to questions about their owner's sex). As early as 11,000 years ago a band of Chumash settled in the northern Channel Islands and possibly the southern as well. The Chumash also traditionally made their home coastal plain between Morro Bay and Malibu (the name of which is derived from the Chumash name Humaliwo meaning “the surf sounds loudly”). The island-dwelling Chumash were known to the mainland Chumash as the Michhumash or “the makers of shell bead money.”


Chumash tomol (Image source: Chumash Maritime Association)

Along with the Mapuche in Chile, the Chumash were one of the only Native Americans nations known to possess deep ocean-faring boats, which they called tomol. Tomol are plank canoes that were up to 30 feet in length and carried about ten people. A tomol-building Chumash organization known as The Brotherhood of the Tomol disbanded in 1834. A newer group of tomol-makers formed in 1976 and their craft, the ‘Elye’wun, which made its first trip to Santa Cruz Island in 2001.

Some have theorized that both the Chumash and Mapuche learned the craftt of building plank canoes from the Austronesian people who colonized most of the Pacific. In the Western Hemisphere, sewn plank canoes are known only in the Pacific Islands, Chile, and the Channel Islands. Pacific Islanders reached both Hawaii and Rapa Nui from, most likely, the Marquesas as early as 300 CE. Around the same time, similar technology appeared in the Americas.

The evidence is intriguing but hardly incontrovertible. That theory may well bear out but I am always suspicious of how seemingly whenever ancient Native Americans have shown high levels of technological sophistication, someone will invariably suggest that everyone from Africans, to Europeans, to Melanesians, to Pacific Islanders must've had a hand in it. Of course then there are the nutty (and even more insulting) theories perpetuated by the always ridiculous History Channel that people traveled across the galaxy to meddle in human history. On the other hand, our improving understanding of DNA in recent years has radically challenged perceptions about the Pre-Columbian Era, suggesting that it was far more interconnected than previously thought.


Maritime Village (Image source: Keepers of Indigenous Ways)

The Tongva (also sometimes referred to as Kizh) people arrived from the Sonoran Desert to the Los Angeles Basin sometime in the vicinity of 7,000 BCE years ago. They almost certainly learned to make plank boats from the Chumash, which they called ti’at, and used them to settle the southern islands. Evidence suggests that the Tongva may’ve wrested control of the islands from the Chumash through violence, as there is evidence on San Clemente and San Nicolas Islands of several deadly, ancient battles.


In 1542, the first Spaniard, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, passed by California and claimed the islands for Spain. In 1602 another Spanish explorer, Sebastián Vizcaíno, again “discovered” the islands. After that, from 1602 till 1769, there was no recorded contact between the Spanish and Native Channel Islanders. Despite their claim on them, Spanish did little to prevent other nations from exploiting the islands and in modern times Aleuts, Americans, Chinese, and Russians all freely pursued their interests on them, in the process greatly reducing the Native populations with both disease and killing. In the 19th Century, the Spanish forcibly relocate the remaining Chumash and Tongva people to the mainland Missions, which were essentially labor camps.

Though many of the captured Natives died, it would be wrong to assume that both people are extinct. Today there are several thousand people who identify as Chumash . The Santa Ynez Band is federally recognized Chumash tribe. There are other bands who have yet to gain federal recognition but who, in several cases, are attempting to. The first Chumash dictionary was published in 2008 and there is a documentary available titled 6 Generations: A Chumash Family History

There are also somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,700 Tongva alive today but no Tongva band has thus far been granted federal recognition. There is a subsection of Amoeba's Documentary section called Native America which is where one can find documentaries about indigenous people of the Americas from Chile's Diego Ramírez Islands in the south to Kaffeklubben Island, Greenland in the north.


Catalina Civil War Barracks (Image: White, William Sanford &Steven Kern Tice's Santa Catalina Island)

In 1848, the US defeated Mexico (who'd gained independence from Spain in 1821) and conquered all of California, including of course the Channel Islands. For a century, the islands were used primarily for ranching and hunting, resulting in the extinction of some species and widespread environmental devastation. Santa Catalina began to be developed as a tourist destination in the 1890s but during World War II, all of the Channel Islands were placed under the control of the US military. Military installations were built on several islands and San Miguel was used as a bombing range.


Channel Islands National Park (Image source: QT Luong)

It was only in 1980 that Channel Islands National Park was designated in the northern islands. It wasn’t until 1986 that most came into the ownership of the National Park system and the long road to recovery of the islands began.


Channel Islands Slender Salamander and Island Fox (images: Alice Abela and Callie Bowdish)

Despite years of devastation, the Channel Islands remain one of the richest marine biospheres in the world and through conservation efforts, there is considerable environmental recovery underway. DDT use in the 1950s resulted in the local extinction of Bald Eagles by the 1960s but they’ve since been reintroduced. Still extant unique species include the shy Storm-petrel, Channel Islands Slender Salamander, Channel Islands Spotted Skunk, Island fence lizard, Island Fox, Island Night Lizard, Island Scrub Jay, San Clemente loggerhead shrike, San Clemente sage sparrow, and Santa Cruz sheep. Unquire flora include a subspecies of Torrey Pine, the Channel Island Oak, and the Island Tree mallow.

In popular culture, the Channel Islands as a group have surprisingly little presence (considering what a treasure they are). A band from Chico, The Mother Hips, have a song called "Channel Island Girl" which may or may not refer to the California Channel Islands. If there are other books, movies, games or songs about the islands, let me know. Works about or relevant to specific islands are mentioned below in the corresponding sections about the islands.



Potato Harbor at Santa Cruz Island

At 250 square kilometers, Santa Cruz Island is not only the largest of the islands in the chain but the largest island in all of California. It was formerly the largest privately owned island off the continental US. It contains two mountain ranges in which the highest peak is the 740 meter tall Devils Peak. There are permanently flowing springs and streams.

Map of Santa Cruz Island

Remains of ten Chumash villages have been located on the island, which is believed to have at one time supported a population of roughly 1,200. The largest known village, Swaxil, was located near the site of Scorpion Ranch. Cabrillo observed six villages and named the island San Lucas. The Chumash already had a name for the island, Limuw, which means something like “place in the sea.” Like Cabrillo, Vizcaíno apparently didn't ask the indigenous inhabitants and labeled it on his map the Isla de Gente Barbuda or, the Island of Bearded People. Legend tells of a Spanish priest's long lost staff that was presented to Gaspar de Portolà de Rovira during his 1769 expedition. It was supposedly that event which led to the island once again being renamed, this time Santa Cruz. The last of the Chumash were removed in 1822 by Mexico, the year after achieving independence. Mexico then turned it into a small penal colony for a short time. In 1839 it was granted to Captain Andrés Castillero.

Scorpion Ranch (Image source: Shannon Technologies)

In 1855, during Castillero’s stewardship, an English physician named James B. Shaw was allowed to build a ranch home and start a Merino sheep operation. In 1857 the island was sold to William Barron and by 1864, some 24,000 sheep grazed the island. By the 1880s, a Frenchman named Justinian Claire acquired the island. In 1937 his family sold most of the island to oilman Edwin Stanton but continued to maintain a sheep ranch on the island's east end. Stanton, for his part, shifted the old ranch’s focus to beef production.

Painted Cave (Image source: Santa Barbara Independent)

In 1980 the US Government designated all four northern islands a National Park. Nonetheless, descendants of Claire were allowed to continue ranching until 1984, at which time the ranch was leased to a hunting organization who hunted feral pigs and the remaining sheep. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the remaining privately-owned land was finally purchased from Claire’s descendants and the process of rehabilitation could begin.Today the responsibility of protecting and preserving of Santa Cruz Island is divided between The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service.

(Image source: Wander Melon)

There are archaeological sites from several periods of the island's history including Chumash shell middens and barns, blacksmiths, a chapel, homes and saddle shops from the ranch era. The island also has three airstrips: Unknown Airstrip, Christy Airstrip, and Santa Cruz Island Airport.


Santa Rosa Island (Image credit: Callie Bowdish)

Santa Rosa Island is, at 215 square kilometers, the second largest of the Channel Islands although it's home to just two residents. The highest point is the 484 meter tall Vail Peak on Soledad Mountain. The Chumash called it Wimat, which refers to the redwood logs that floated ashore from coastal forests to the north and which were used to construct the tomol. So far the remains of eight villages have been discovered. 

In 1843, during the Mexican period, ownership of the island was granted to brothers José Antonio and Carlos Antonio Carrillo. It remained in their family until 1862, when the island was purchased by T. Wallace More and who established a ranch. The More family sold the island to Walter L. Vail and J.W. Vickers in 1902, who continued ranching and operated a private hunting reserve. It was purchased in 1986 to be included within the Channel Islands National Park.

Water Canyon Beach (Image credit: National Park Service)

Santa Rosa's landscape is characterized by rolling hills, canyons, beaches and a coastal lagoon. It’s home to at least six plant varieties found nowhere else, including a subspecies of Torrey Pine, a remnant of a once large Pleistocene forest.

Image credit: Colleen at Dave's Travel Corner

As with Santa Cruz Island there remain relics of the previous inhabitants from different periods in the form of ruins of fishing camps, ranch buildings, and military installations. A year round charter flight service is available from Camarillo Airport for visitors to Santa Rosa Island. 


Catalina Island sunset

Santa Catalina Island, usually simply referred to as Catalina, is 194 square kilometers in area. Its tallest point is 648 meter high Mount Orizaba. Its population comprises 99.8% that of the combined islands. Unlike the other four southern islands, no signs of pre-Tongva use have thus far been discovered. The band of Tongva who formerly made it home called the island Pimu'gna (“place of the Pimu”) and themselves Pimugnans or Pimuvit. Their largest villages were located near the present day sites of Avalon, Emerald Bay, and Shark Harbor.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of Santa Catalina Island 

Upon visiting in 1542, Cabrillo, named the island San Salvador. In 1602, Vizcaíno "discovered" it on the Eve of Saint Catherine’s Day and thus renamed it Santa Catalina Island. Mexico granted the island to Thomas M. Robbins in 1846. In 1850 Robbins sold the island to José María Covarrubias who in 1853 sold it to Albert Packard who in turn sold it to James Lick.

After the end of the Civil War, real estate developer George Shatto was the first to capitalize on the island’s potential as a tourist destination and built the island’s first hotel, Hotel Metropole, as well as a pier. His sister-in-law, Etta Whitney, came up with the name Avalon for the resort, inspired by Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem “Idylls of the King.” Shatto soon defaulted on his loan and ownership returned to the Lick estate.

Catalina Island Airport in the Sky

The Santa Catalina Island Company was established by the sons of Phineas Banning in 1891 with the intention of further developing the island as a resort. In addition to promoting Avalon, the Banning brothers developed inland roads for stagecoach tours and to access hunting lodges. They also built homes for themselves at Descanso Canyon and in what’s now Two Harbors. Their efforts were majorly set back when a fire destroyed most of Avalon on 29 November, 1915. In 1919 the brothers were forced to sell shares of their company.

After visiting the island with his family, William Wrigley, Jr. purchased most of the island’s shares and thus gained controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company. To drum up publicity, Wrigley’s Chicago Cubs began using the island for spring training in 1921 and stayed at the Hotel St. Catherine in Descanso Bay. Wrigley built the iconic Catalina Casino in 1929. In the 1920s and ‘30s it was a popular getaway for movie stars and other celebrities. Today, 90% of Catalina's residents live in Avalon. There are five native land mammals on the island -- a subspecies of California Ground Squirrel, the Santa Catalina Island Harvest Mouse, the Santa Catalina Island Deer Mouse, the Ornate Shrew, and the Island Fox. In addition to the fox, the most recognizable fauna icon of the island is the American Bison, introduced in 1924 for a film, The Vanishing American.

Interior of Catalina Jet (boat)

Santa Catalina is easily accessed by use of the Catalina Express. Passenger ferries depart from Dana Point, Long Beach, Marina del Rey, Newport Beach, and San Pedro. Tickets for the boat aren't cheap... except on your birthday, when they're free! Helicopters also connect Long Beach and San Pedro to the island.

Claressa Avenue in Avalon
Santa Catalina was sung about in the song "26 Miles," by The Four Preps -- which is referenced in the title of this piece. Additionally, it’s been mentioned or referenced in songs including Harry Carroll and Harold Atteridge's "By the Beautiful Sea" (1914), Al Jolson and Vincent Rose's "Avalon" (1920), Nacio Herb Brown and Grant Clarke's "Avalon Town" (1928), Carrie Jacobs-Bond's "California" (1929), Cliff Friend and Con Conrad's "California" (1930), Harold Spina's "Santa Catalina" (1946), Gorden Vanderburg's "Catalina Honeymoon" (1953), The Descendents’ “Catalina" (1982), and Modern Skirts’ “Pasadena” (2005). Every year the island hosts the Catalina Island Jazztrax Festival. It was also the recording site of John Tesh: The Avalon Concert (1997). 

To read my account of visiting Santa Catalina, click here.


San Clemente (Image source: The Wanderling)

San Clemente Island is 147 square kilometers in area. Its highest peak is the 599 meter high Vista Point. Though officially uninhabited, at any point there are about 300 Navy personnel stationed at the island's military base.

Image source: Neil Kramer

The Island was likely first inhabited by the Chumash, whose skeletons might be among those discovered at the ancient battle sites. The island was known as Kiingkenga by the Tonva and included several villages including Guinguina and Kinkipar.

In 1542 Cabrillo renamed it Victoria. Since Vizcaíno spotted it on the Eve of Saint Clement’s Day in 1602, he re-named it San Clemente Island. The city of San Clemente in South Orange County is named after the island. Salvador Ramirez likely introduced goats to the island from Catalina in 1875. The navy acquired the island in 1934. By 1972 there were about 11,000 feral goats wreaking devastation on the island's ecosystem and in 1980 the Navy announced their intention of terminating the remaining 4,000 or so with extreme prejudice. Horrified, the Fund for Animals intervened and captured and relocated them to the mainland and the San Clemente Goat is now recognized as a distinct breed. There’s even a San Clemente Island Goat Association.

San Clemente Goats (Image source: SVF Foundation)

The island remains home to the endangered the San Clemente Island Loggerhead Shrike and the San Clemente Island Fox.


San Nicolas Island (Image credit: NOAA
 Habitat Conservation)

San Nicolas Island is 59 square kilometers. The Chumash called the inhabitants of the island Niminocotch. It was also the apparent site of deadly battles. Its highest point is an unnamed, 276 meter peak. As with San Clemente, it’s currently under the control of the US Navy who maintain a permanent presence of about 200 military and civilian personnel on the base. It’s the most remote of the islands, located about 119 kilometers from the mainland.

The island was renamed for Saint Nicholas after Vizcaíno sited it on Saint Nicholas Day in 1602. The Native population were re-named the Nicoleños by the Spanish. After a series of deadly conflicts with Aleut hunters, the padres of the nearby missions relocated them in 1835 to the mainland, where they all quickly died from diseases to which they had no immunity. One from the inhabitants of the village Ghalas-at was left behind and lived alone for eighteen years after the evacuation until she was discovered by Captain George Nidever and his crew in 1853 and taken to Santa Barbara. There she died seven weeks later and her story was the basis for O’Dell’s 1960 book Island of the Blue Dolphins. The book was the basis for the 1964 live action film of the same name directed by James P. Clark (The Sad Horse, A Dog of Flanders, Misty, Flipper, and My Side of the Mountain) which, of course, stars a white in Redface doing a weird sort of English. San Nicolas Island was also the setting of its less-known sequel, Zia. More obscurely, it was the setting for the 1994 computer game, Rise of the Triad: Dark War and was Arius’s Island in the film, Commando (1985). 

The island was grazed by sheep until their removal in 1943. Another threat to the ecosystem came when Navy officers brought cats that quickly established a feral population. Beginning in 2009 a group of organizations began relocating the cats to a sanctuary in Ramona, California. They were believed to be eradicated by 2010 and were officially declared so in 2012.

Image source: Chuck Graham for Noowshawk

Despite the degradation, three endemic plants remain on the island: Trask's milkvetch, Red buckwheat, and San Nicholas biscuitroot. There are only three species of endemic land vertebrates on the island; the island night lizard, a type of deer mouse, and the island fox.


San Miguel Island is the westernmost of the Channel Islands. Its area is 38 square kilometers and it includes offshore islands and rocks, most notably Prince Island. The highest point is the 253 meter high San Miguel Hill.

The Chumash called the island Tuqan and it supported at least two villages. Nowadays it supports no permanent human population. There are natural oil seepages which the Chumash utilized for a variety of purposes including waterproofing and paving.


Anacapa Island (Image credit: Callie Bowdish)

Anacapa is the only one of the Channel Islands not to have a Spanish-derived name. Perhaps it was too small – or maybe it wasn’t there when the Spanish passed through. After all, the name comes from the Chumash 'Anyapakh meaning “mirage island.” The Chumash established no permanent villages due to a lack of consistent fresh water sources but did camp there seasonally as evinced by the remaining shell middens.

Anacapa is actually composed of three volcanic islets: East, Middle and West Anacapa, sometimes referred to collectively as the Anacapas. Their collective area is less than 3 square kilometers and it’s the smallest of the northern islands. At eighteen kilometers from the mainland coast, it’s also the nearest of the islands to shore. The ranger station there is home to three permanent residents.

Anacapa Lighthouse (image source: Shannon Technologies)

In 1853 the steamer, the SS Winfield Scott, ran aground off its coast and sank, stranding a group of passengers. Although they were rescued a week later, they left behind the ship's rats,which contributed to the destruction of the ecosystem. The US Coast Guard built a light beacon in 1912 and a Mission Revival-style light station built in 1932, which still stands and includes a lighthouse, fog signal, keeper’s quarters and other structures. It was the last lighthouse built by the United States Lighthouse Service. The island's most iconic feature is a twelve meter high natural bridge known as Arch Rock.

Arch Rock on Anacapa Island (Image source: Digital Apoptosis)

Sheep were introduced in the late 1890s and rabbits in the 1910s which decimated the landscape that was previously dominated by Giant Coreopsis (a large succulent that reaches heights of two meters) and Anacapa Island desert-dandelions. The last sheep were finally removed in 1938 and the rabbits were vanquished in the 1950s. The last of the rats were eradicated by 2002. It’s still home to sixteen endemic plant species which also survived the introduction of highly invasive iceplants by the Coast Guard. The current plan is to eradicate the last of that introduced species by 2016.

Pelican nesting spot on Anacapa (Image source: Callie Bowdish)

Anacapa is home to the largest breeding colony of the California Brown Pelican in the US and another unique subspecies of deer mouse. There are two native reptiles including the endemic Side-Blotched Lizard.


Santa Barbara Island sea lion rookery

With an area of just 2.63 square kilometers, Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of the Channel Islands. Its highest peak is the 193 meter high Signal Hill. The island is located nearest to the center of the archipelago and is both lumped in with the southern islands and part of the Channel Islands National Park. It includes two named, offshore rocks: Shag Rock and Sutil Island which, like it, were formed by volcanic activity. 

Lacking a consistent source of fresh water or firewood, the island (which the Tongva called Tchunashngna) likely supported no permanent Tongva settlements. It was re-named by Vizcaíno who visited the island on December 4, 1602, Saint Barbara’s Day. The island is home to the largest breeding colony for Scripps's Murrelet , a threatened species of seabird. It’s also home to a large populations of California sea lions, harbor seals, and northern elephant seals. The Santa Barbara Island live-forever is a succulent species endemic to the island. A subspecies of horned lark, orange-crowned warbler, and house finches are also endemic. The only reptile on the island is the endemic (and threatened) night lizard.

(Image source: T.C. Boyle for Smithsonian Magazine)

Feral cats led to the extinction of the endemic Santa Barbara Island song sparrow in the 1960s. After years of ranching and the introduction of nonnative plants, rabbits, and cats, the native landscape is recovering under the guidance of the National Park Service.


So there you have it, eight more reasons that Southern California is so special. Although I haven't opened up my community explorations to Santa Barbara or Ventura Counties, that's no reason to not visit the islands that are part of them. Of course you can always vote for Two Harbors or any other Los Angeles County communities to be the subject of future entries by clicking here. To vote for Orange County communities, click here. Finally, to vote for Los Angeles neighborhoods, click here.


Follow Eric's Blog and check out more episodes of California Fool's Gold

California Fool's Gold -- Exploring Santa Catalina Island and Avalon

Posted by Eric Brightwell, June 26, 2013 07:38pm | Post a Comment

Two weeks ago I made my first visit to one of California’s Channel Islands, Santa Catalina Island. For those that don’t know, Southern California is home to an archipelago of small, rugged islands off its coast. My 2012 New Year’s resolution was to visit one or more of the Channel Islands. Having failed to realize this wish by December of that year, I instead resolved to learn to tie a bow tie after being berated (jokingly, I think) for not knowing how do so despite operating a gentlemen’s shop. For the record, I accomplished this last minute resolution and wore a bow tie a few nights later New Year’s Eve that I tied all by myself. Any, since transportation via Catalina Express is free on one’s birthday, I decided to have another go at island life.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography's map of Santa Catalina Island 

Accompanying me in her debut appearance was Una. In order to get as much out of our adventure as possible, we departed at some pre-dawn hour. After a hastily-devoured meal from McDonald's (which, though simple and clarified three times, managed nonetheless to be both screwed up and roof-of-the-mouth blisteringly hot) we raced down the docks and leapt aboard the boat with about two minutes to spare.

 Catalina Landing and another Catalina Express boat in Long Beach

Despite the relatively early hour, I could scarcely contain my excitement at once again being back on the sea after so long on land. As we passed freighters in the Harbor from the other side of the ocean, I thought what an adventure it must be to journey, even as a mere cabin boy, between San Pedro Bay and Japan or China by sea -- singing sea shanties for the enjoyment of my fellow seamen. As the biting wind struck my face I reminisced about hitting the seas to go scuba diving and remembered that one of the main draws of California upon me was its maritime nature. Before long the site of Catalina (almost always visible from the mainland as a dark silhouette) came into focus like something out of a dream.

Avalon emerging on the horizon


Santa Catalina Island, often referred to as either Catalina Island or just Catalina, is about 35 km long and 13 km wide at its greatest width. It’s located 35 km from the coast. The highest point is the 639 meter tall Mount Orizaba. The Channel Islands, in descending order of size, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, Santa Catalina, San Clemente, San Nicolas, San Miguel, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara. Like San Clemente Island, Santa Catalina Island is just as much a part of Los Angeles County as the communities of the mainland (even though the two islands are often given the Alaska and Hawaii treatment on maps). 

Pendersleigh & Sons' Cartography's map of Los Angeles County regions and detail of Channel Islands

To vote for other Los Angeles County communities  to be the subject of future blog entries, vote here. To vote for other Los Angeles neighborhoods, vote here. To vote for Orange County communities and neighborhoods, vote here



Several of California’s Channel Islands – Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel – were historically home to the Chumash, who may’ve settled them some 10,000 years ago. It’s possible that San Clemente, San Nicolas and Santa Catalina were as well also home to bands of Chumash. Evidence on San Nicolas and San Clemente suggest that at least they were the sites of major battles. What is known with more certainty is that around 7,000 BCE bands of Tongva were living on all three of these southern Channel Islands.

Santa Catalina appears to have been first settled a group calling themselves Pimugnans or Pimuvit. The Tongva band called the island Pimu'gna (“Place of the Pimu”) and archaeological evidence suggest that they first settled the islands after their ancestors emigrated from distant the Sonoran Desert. Their largest settlements were near the present day settlements at Avalon, Shark Harbor, and Emerald Bay. They traded soapstone from the island with other nations along the California coast and possibly with Polynesians. Evidence from the thousands of ancient middens on the island suggests that around 2,000 BCE the island was home to around 2,500 Pimuvit.


The first European explorer, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, arrived on 7 October, 1542 and, naming it San Salvador, claimed it for Spain. In 1602 another Spanish explorer, Sebastián Vizcaíno, again “discovered” the island, this time naming it Santa Catalina in recognition of the Eve of Saint Catherine’s Day (24 November), on which he arrived. The Spanish lacked the ability to prevent other nations from using the island and for centuries Aleut, American and Russian otter hunters, luckless gold prospectors, and smugglers used the islands for their own purposes, decimating the Pimugnans with disease and deliberate killings.


Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 and the islands changed hands once again. The last of the Pimugnans were gone by the 1830s – mostly victims of disease and migration to the mainland in search of work. Governor Pío Pico granted the island to Thomas M. Robbins in 1846 as Rancho Santa Catalina.


Miners on Catalina - Image source: The Catalina Islander

In 1850 Robbins sold the island to José María Covarrubias who sold it to Albert Packard in 1853 who in turn sold it to James Lick. Despite the fact that no gold was ever found on the island, otter hunters began telling tales of gold mines and buried treasure. Boom towns sprang up and in 1863 and 70 miners were then mining various claims. One character, Stephen Bouchette, claimed to have struck a rich vein and after securing a backing to mine for gold, set sail with his wife and all of their belongings and was never heard from again. In 1864, the US ordered everyone off the island and a small garrison of troops was stationed on the isthmus’s west end. The barracks, still there, are currently home to the Isthmus Yacht Club and are the oldest structure on the island.


Civil War barracks at Two Harbors - Image source: Visit Catalina Island

After the end of the Civil War, a few ranchers began to move to the island. Real estate developer George Shatto was the first to capitalize on the island’s potential as a tourist destination. After buying the island from the Lick estate, Shatto built the island’s first hotel, Hotel Metropole, and a pier. His sister-in-law, Etta Whitney, came up with the name Avalon, taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem “Idylls of the King.” Shatto soon defaulted on his loan and ownership returned to the Lick estate.

Postcard depicting Avalon Bay in 1900


The Santa Catalina Island Company was established by the sons of Phineas Banning in 1891 with the intention of developing the island as a resort. In addition to promoting Avalon, the Banning brothers developed inland roads for stagecoach tours and to access hunting lodges. They also built homes for themselves at Descanso Canyon and in what’s now Two Harbors. Their efforts were majorly set back when a fire destroyed most of Avalon on 29 November, 1915. In 1919 the brothers were forced to sell shares of their company.


The Tuna Club of Avalon

After visiting the island with his family, William Wrigley, Jr. purchased most of the island’s shares and thus gained controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company. The Tuna Club of Avalon was built in 1916. To drum up publicity, Wrigley’s Chicago Cubs began using the island for spring training in 1921 and stayed at the Hotel St. Catherine in Descanso Bay. The Catalina Island Yacht Club, established in 1893, built a new Yacht Club in 1924 (the former was destroyed in the fire). Wrigley established the Wrigley Ocean Marathon in 1927. He built the Catalina Casino in 1929. He died in 1932 and control of the company passed to his son, Philip, who continued his father’s work.

Left Catalina Island Yacht Club (built 1924). Right Catalina Casino (1929)

The 1920s and ‘30s are widely considered to have been the island’s heyday with movie stars like Clark Gable frequently making high profile visits and famous western author Zane Grey making his home there (which is now the phone-and-TV-less Zane Grey Pueblo Hotel).

During World War II the island was used by the military and closed to tourists. San Clemente Island, to the south, is still owned by the military and off-limits to visitors. The US Maritime Service, Coast Guard, Office of Strategic Services, Army Signal Corp and Navy all established a presence at various locations throughout the island.

In 1972, 26 Brown Berets planted a Mexican flag in Catalina, claiming that the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty between Mexico and the US didn’t cover the Channel Islands. Following 24 days of camping near Chimes Tower the activists returned to the mainland. In 1975, 42,135 acres of the island were deeded not to Mexico but to the Catalina Island Conservancy, established the same year as the Brown Berets’ action.



Avalon, as seen from the mountains

As of 2010, Catalina was home to 4,096 people – with 90% living in the only incorporated community, Avalon. Unincorporated Two Harbors is the next largest settlement and was then home to only about 298 people. The population of the island is about 56% Latino, 41% white Anglo, and about 2% Asian/Pacific Islander.


About 400 species of native plants grow on the island. Six varieties are endemic. There are five native land mammals: a subspecies of California Ground Squirrel, the Santa Catalina Island Harvest Mouse, the Santa Catalina Island Deer Mouse, the Ornate Shrew, and the aforementioned Island Fox.

Critically endangered Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis)

The endangered Island Fox was almost wiped out. In 1999, there remained only about 100. A recovery program increased their numbers and I saw and snapped a picture of one of the new roughly 400.

Bison grazing in the hills

In addition to the fox, the most recognizable fauna icon of the island is the American Bison. Fourteen bison were brought to the island in 1924 for the film, The Vanishing American. Rather than euthanize or return the bison, the filmmakers simply left them be and today there are about 150 which have -- along with other non-natives including Blackbuck, Bullfrogs, feral cats, Mule Deer, rats, and Starlings -- wrought taxed the ecosystem. The non-native cattle, goats, pigs, and sheep were also destructive but are no longer present on the island. The waters around the island is home to California SheepheadGaribaldiGreat White sharks, Leopard sharks, White Seabass, Yellowtail, Bat Rays, Giant Sea Bass, California Sea lions, and Harbor Seals


Catalina is regularly serviced by public transportation. Passenger ferries depart from Dana Point, Long Beach, Marina del Rey, Newport Beach, and San Pedro. Helicopters also connect Long Beach and San Pedro to the island. On the day of our visit, there was a Carnival Cruise ship broken down (I kid) off the coast.

Catalina Airport (CIB)

For those with access to a private plane, the island is also home to the Catalina Airport aka Airport-in-the-Sky, built in 1946 on top of a mountain 488 meters above sea level.


Claressa Avenue in Avalon, CA

Most residents of Catalina own gas-powered golf carts and many tourists rent them as well. When we explored Avalon in the morning, it took me a bit to get used to what sounded and smelled like 2,000 lawn mowers and leaf blowers being operated at once. There are also bike riders and rentals as well as tour busses and a trolley. There are, contrary to what I’d heard, some proper cars and trucks. Most of the ones that I were Minis (originals, not BMW’s) and Japanese mini trucks.

Metropola Avenue in Avalon, CA


With almost one million annual visitors annually dwarfing the local population by hundreds of times, it should come as no surprise that tourism is central to the island’s economy. There are all sorts of appropriately touristy activities available including glass bottom boats, scuba diving, snorkeling, para-sailing, and tours seem to be especially popular. Despite Avalon’s most iconic architecture being Catalina Casino, legal gambling is not. To quote Pee-Wee Herman, “Some things they don't teach you in school; some things you just have to learn for yourself.” We opted for an inland bus tour, the tickets for which were sold to us by a seemingly authentic Sea Hag straight out of Popeye. We also, not very tourist-like, visited the local library.

The Sea Hag and Alice the Goon

Swimming in the ocean near Avalon’s beaches is also popular although the fact that the Natural Resources Defense Council lists Avalon as one of the ten most chronically polluted beaches in the nation due to mainly to its antiquated sewer system convinced me to pursue liquid refreshment elsewhere – namely, in a bar.


Nearly all of the restaurants on Catalina Island are in Avalon. Refreshingly, none are part of an international chain. We ate a hearty elevenses at Pancake Cottage, a light lunch Avalon Seafood (aka Fish and Chips), and dinner at Lobster Trap. In between he enjoyed ice cream from Big Olaf's Ice Cream, and beer at one of the island's only proper bars, the Marlin Club.

Restaurants we didn't manage to check out include Antonio's Pizzeria & The Catalina Cabaret, Avalon Grille, Avalon's Plaza Cafe, Barbecue House, Bluewater Grill, Buffalo Nickel Restuarant, Cafe Metropole, Casino Dock Cafe, Catalina Cantina, CC Beau Deli, CC Gallagher, Channel House Restaurant, Chef D'Arcy's Soul Food, Coney Island West, Coyote Joe's Bar & Restaurant, Debbie's Island Deli, Descanso Beach Club, Dessert Island, Dockside Deli, Eli's Island Deli, El Galleon, Eric's on the Pier, Island Sushi, Joe's Place, Katie's Kitchen, Landing Bar & Grill, Laua Larry's, Lori's Good Stuff, M Restaurant, Mi Casita Mexican Restaurant, Mr. Ning's Chinese Garden, Original Anotio's Deli, Original Jack's Country Kitchen, Pete's Plaza Cafe, Pic Nic Fry, Ristorante Villa Portofino, Sally's Waffle Shop, Sandtrap Restaurant and Bar, Steve's Steakhouse, Three Palms Avalon Arcade, and Topless Tacos.

Outside of Avalon there are few options. We squeezed in more beer at DC-3 Gifts and Grill (aka Runway Cafe) which is located at the airport. In Two Harbors there's Doug's Harbor Reef Restaurant. Presumably guests can get breakfast at least at the island's bed and breakfasts.


Catalina has long been the subject of documentaries. A sampling of the earliest includes Santa Catalina, Magic Isle of the Pacific (1911), Santa Catalina Islands, and The Capture of a Sea Elephant and Hunting Wild Game in the South Pacific Islands (both 1914).

The island has also been a filming location for episodes of several TV series including Airwolf, The Aquanauts, The Bachelor, Bahcelor Pad, The Bold and the Beautiful, Den store fisketuren, Falling in Love with the Girl Next Door, The Girls Next Door, Hell's Kitchen, Home from Home, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, Mannix, Route 66, Sea Hunt, Twentysixmiles, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Its list of features and short films set and/or filmed there includes but is not limited to Biblical stories, prehistoric fantasies, pirate movies, swashbucklers, and Naval epics. Many films shot in Catalina were done so in the silent era, including Action (1921), American Pluck (1925), The Beach Combers (1912), Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), The Black Pirate (1926), Conquering the Woman (1922), Ebb Tide (1922), Feet of Clay (1924), Half a Man (1925), His Jonah Day (1920), The Isle of Lost Ships (1923), The Kid Brother (1927), The King of Kings (1927), Loot (1919), Male and Female (1919), Man's Genesis (1912), Miss Adventure (1919), No Man's Land (1918), Old Ironsides (1926), Peter Pan (1924), A Prizma Color Visit to Catalina (1919), The Professor's Wooing (1912), Rivals (1912), A Romance at Catalina (1912), Roughest Africa (1923), The Sea Beast (1926), The Sea Hawk (1924), The Sea Maiden (1913), The Sea Nymphs (1914), The Shepherd of the Hills (1919), Sirens of the Sea (1917), Terror Island (1920), The Treasure of the Sea (1918), the aforementioned The Vanishing American (1925), The Woman (1915), The Valley of the Moon (1914), and The Yankee Girl (1915).

Catalina's also been a filming location and/or setting for many talkies. Consider the following:

Affairs in Order (2008), All Ashore (1953), All is Lost (2013), Apollo 13 (1995), Aquanoids (2003), Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), Battle at Bloody Beach (1961), Beachcomber (2009), Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss (1998), Bird of Paradise (1932), Blockade (1938), The Blue Men (1990), Born to Dance (1936), The Buccaneer (1938), Captain Calamity (1936), Catalina Caper (1967), Chinatown (1974),

The Circuit III: Final Flight
(2006), Cruise into Terror (1978), The Cruise of the Jasper B (1926), Dancing Dynamite (1931), Dangerous Character (1962), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Dead in the Head (2010), The Divine Lady (1929), The Divorcee (1930),  El capitan Tormenta (1936), Elmer, the Great (1933), Fast Life (1932), The First to Go (1997), The Flaming Signal (1933), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), 
Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Harpoon (1948), Hero's Island (1962),

Hong Kong Nights
(1935), The Hurricane (1937), I Live My Life (1935), The In-Laws (1979), The Incredible Petrified World (1957), Into the Wild (2007), Island of Lost Souls (1932), Island Prey (2005), Jack the Giant Killer (1962), Jaws (1975), Journey of Echoes (2011), King of the Jungle (1933), Life as a House (2001), 
Lost Focus (2004), Love thy Neighbor (1940), The Man with Bogart's Face (1980), Men Without Women (1930), Mermaids of Tiburon (1962),

Monster from the Ocean Floor
(1954), The Monster That Challenged the World (1957), Murder on a Honeymoon (1935), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), New Moon (1940), Oh Kay! (1928), P.J. (1968), 
Pirate Party on Catalina Isle (1935), Pirates of the High Seas (1950), Platinum High School (1960), Port of Hate (1939), Rain (1932), Reap the Wild Wind (1942), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), Red Hair (1928), Ruthless (1948),

Sadie Thompson (1928), Sand Sharks (2011), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), The Sea God (1930), 
The Sea Hound (1947), Seas Beneath (1931), The Shepherd of the Hills (1928), Sherlock: Undercover Dog (1994), The Sin Ship (1931), Sixteen Fathoms Deep (1934), The Son of Kong (1933), Song of the Islands (1942), Strange Interlude (1932), Submarine D-1 (1937), Suicide Kings (1997), Summer Children (1965), The Tenderfoot (1965), Tormented (1960), two short films called Catalina (both 2007), Typhoon (1940), Wake of the Red Witch (1948), Waterworld (1995), We're Not Dressing (1934), When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950), and You Said a Mouthful (1932) 

In 1981, actress Natalie Wood drowned in the waters near Two Harbors under fishy circumstances, where she and her husband, actor Robert Wagner, were vacationing aboard their yacht with fellow actor Christopher Walken. In 2011 the case was reopened due to statements made by the yacht’s captain, Dennis Davern. When we visited, there was some sort of related exhibit regarding the events at the small Catalina Island Museum.

Catalina is also the birthplace of actor/producer/director Gregory Harrison (he directed episodes of Trapper John, MD and Touched by an Angel), visual effects guy Jack Cosgrove (Gone with the Wind), and Ernie Reed (camera and electrical department on City Heat).


Not a lot of (or any that I’m aware of) widely-recognized music performers or bands have emerged from the island’s small population but it has hosted a couple of big names and events. Every year there’s the Catalina Island Jazztrax Festival. It was also the recording site of John Tesh: The Avalon Concert (1997).

Additionally, it’s been mentioned or referenced in a couple of songs including Harry Carroll and Harold Atteridge's "By the Beautiful Sea" (1914), Al Jolson and Vincent Rose's "Avalon" (1920), Nacio Herb Brown and Grant Clarke's "Avalon Town" (1928), Carrie Jacobs-Bond's "California" (1929), Cliff Friend and Con Conrad's "California" (1930), Harold Spina's "Santa Catalina" (1946), Gorden Vanderburg's "Catalina Honeymoon" (1953), The Four Preps’ “26 Miles” (1958), The Descendents’ “Catalina" (1982), and Modern Skirts’ “Pasadena” (2005).


We caught the last ferry home, along with many more people than were on board our boat on the way to Catalina. Whereas our morning journey had been amazingly quiet, the trip home was memorable for the shrill screams of energetic children. Outside the boat’s window, I was treated to a stunning sunset that I gave up on trying to capture with a camera and then the lovely site of downtown Long Beach. down, seven to go!