Channel Islands/Historic Harbor

(Published in Turning Point Magazine)

When Santa Cruz Island finally came into view, the sight of the majestic craggy surface stilled all conversation and movement on our boat, the Jeffrey Arvid. The ocean chugged softly against the sides of the rocking vessel, pulling it closer to the island. We were in awe, privileged to be seeing what the native Chumash and Gabrielino Indians had seen for hundreds of years, before the first European came this and the other surrounding islands.

Our captain circled the island slowly, pointing out the famous painted caves, and with a skill born only from years of seafaring, inched his boat into one of the gaping caverns. The pond inside the cave was as clear as a face bowl full of water, allowing a showcase of algae, sea weed and different species of fish. This was a perfect ending to the five-hour trip to the island, that included the sighting of a 2-year-old blue whale, the largest mammal on earth, which swam beside our boat for 20 minutes.

Twenty miles from Ventura Harbor, Santa Cruz Islands is one of eight islands off the coast of California, all rich with early California history and an array of sea life. On a clear day, beyond the frolicking swimmers, oil tankers and dare-devil surfers, Southern Californians gazing off into the horizon can usually detect the faint outline of one of these islands hugging the bear state’s coast. Five of the islands, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Santa Miguel, Santa Rosa and Anacapa, are an obscure and rugged bunch, existing as the Channel Islands National Park. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Santa Barbara and Anacapa Islands national monuments is 1938, Congress designated all five islands and 125,000 acres of submerged lands as a national park in 1980, recognizing that they contained unique natural and cultural resources.

First populated by the Chumash Indians or “island people,” and the Gabrielino, the islands saw the first European, a would-be “discover,” in 1542. Suffering through a series of fame-hungry explorers, hunters, smugglers, and increased military presence, the native population dwindled, with the last remaining survivors taking up residence at the various missions on the mainland. Today, the islands are accessible with the help of touring companies and by private boats. However, depending on the island’s landscape, boats and visitors need permits to land.

Two of the Channel Islands, San Clemente and San Nicolas, are operated by the Navy and are off limits to the public. The remaining, and especially most popular, Catalina Island—which lies 22 miles off the coast of Long Beach—boasts a booming tourist industry. Save Catalina and the two Navy-owned islands, these often unheralded islands offer a different carte du jour of vacation spots for the traveling family, romantically inclined couple or the independently single nature buff.

Since its “discovery,” Catalina Island has weathered the devastation of the sea otter population by poachers, a smugglers’ ring, a silver rush and tourists galore. During Hollywood’s glamorous heyday, the island was used for movie locations, becoming a popular getaway for stars and avid golfers. Now, the interior of the island is home to a herd of wild American bison (buffalo) that was shipped in for a movie in 1924. Along with a population of bald eagles and foxes, the buffalo live there unmolested. Two Harbors, at the isthmus of Catalina’s west end, also has a campground near the beach and several secluded cottages and hotels. From the blue whale to the microscopic plankton, the islands and surrounding fauna contain several thousand aquatic life forms.

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