The Channel Islands in California: Nearby, but a world away...
Just off the southern California coast lies a magical place of leaping dolphins, towering sea caves with painted ceilings and long stretches of isolated beaches. Only 60 miles away from over 18 million people who call the greater Los Angeles area home, an isolated archipelago beckons to share its secrets such as having North America’s oldest human remains and wildlife found no where else on earth. Venture out to the Channel Islands with H2O Radio to the "The Galápagos of North America" where the mainland ends, and the adventure begins.
Frani: Pop quiz time here on H2O Radio. Name a group of islands that are an internationally acclaimed marine biosphere reserve teeming with wildlife that’s found nowhere else in the world, and that’s also a national park.
The Galápagos off Ecuador, right?
True, but actually we were referring to a place a little closer to home for those of us in the U.S. Somewhere you can go for a day trip a quick getaway no passport required.
We’re talking about the Channel Islands just off the southern California coast and you’d be forgiven for not guessing right. Few travel to this extraordinary place despite it’s being right in LA’s backyard. Today a group of us are aboard the charter “Vanguard” on a sunny, but brisk December morning headed to Anacapa, the smallest and closest in the chain, to discover the island’s allure.
[ Voice of Captain ]
Frani: I’m not going to lie to you. It’s an unusually choppy day out here. Strong winds from the Northwest were generating some decent swells until we got further out to sea that lifted and dropped this very solid 64-foot power boat. But from whoops I hearing from this crowd of passengers the anticipation of seeing wildlife along the way, makes them take the one-hour ride to the islands in stride.
Frani: The Channel Islands are situated just below Point Conception. If you’re looking at a map of California, Point Conception is the place where the coastline changes from running north–south, to going in an east-west direction.
That sudden shift in geography was carved over millions of years as large plates of the earth’s crust moved along fault lines and created a deep basin.
Those dynamic forces also shaped the Channel Islands and its unique ecosystem found nowhere else on earth.
Joel Justin: We have one of the richest marine areas in the world right here in the Santa Barbara Channel.
Frani: That’s Joel Justin. He’s a volunteer naturalist for the Park Service and our guide for the day. He’s explaining “Upwelling” a mixing of currents that creates the perfect elixir for wildlife to thrive.
Joel: Upwelling is a phenomenon that occurs typically on the western edges of continents where you’ve got the northwest trade winds that blow across water towards the mainland and as they blow across the water they move the surface water out of the way which makes room for cold nutrient-rich water to come up from the depths of the ocean.
And within that nutrient-rich water brings lots of decayed plant matter, decayed animal matter which really fires off the food chain and fires off the phytoplankton, which is the plant plankton, which fires off the zooplankton, which is the animal plankton and that fires off the all the bait fishes things like sardines and squids which feed the larger fishes and marines mammals like whales and dolphins and sea lions and seals.
Frani: Speaking of dolphins, a crew member has spotted a pod and parents are excitedly lifting their kids up to make sure they don’t miss seeing them. They’re easy to spot dozens leap in the waves and some are swimming right next us.
[ Voice of woman crew member ]
Frani: Also, we’ve seen whales. Their populations are booming and record numbers of greys, humpbacks and even orcas have been seen migrating south toward Mexico.
We’ve been so distracted by the dolphins that we don’t realize we’ve arrived at the landing. The boat pulls into a small cove where we disembark and climb up a metal staircase several flights along the island’s steep bluffs. Anacapa is volcanic and waves have sculpted the rock into towering cliffs, sea caves, and natural bridges.
We reach the top of stairs to reveal a treeless landscape, but by no means is Anacapa barren. It’s home to 265 species of plants, including two only found on Anacapa and 20 only found on the Channel Islands. Not bad for a rock that’s only ¼ mile wide and five miles long.
Joel: Here’s an example of endemic Island Buckwheat. Behind you see all these white flowers and all these viney plants. That’s Wild Cucumber which is also an endemic species out here on the island. But what I really wanted to show you guys here is if you look down at the trail, you see lots of little shells. These were brought here by the Native American Chumash Indians. This is what they call a midden site. A midden site was basically their trash dump, their refuse pile. They’d put things in these midden piles that they no longer wanted.
Frani: Turns out you can tell a lot about a culture by digging through their trash. Archeological sites on the Channel Islands offer a fascinating window into the past a glimpse of what the archipelago used to be like long before Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo "discovered" them in 1542. Before the Europeans arrived, the Chumash people lived on these lands and cultivated a complex society with their own currency made from white shell beads strung together and developed a unique canoe called a "tomol" that allowed them to trade with mainland Chumash. They thrived on the islands that is until the Spaniards came.
[ Music: “Kanyon Sings a Chumash Grandmother's Song” ]
Joel: Unfortunately the Chumash weren’t always safe out here. Back in the late 1700s the Europeans began to build the missions all up and down the coast of California. They were put there to help bring European values, cultures, religions and traditions to Native Americans. Unfortunately they brought other things like diseases. A huge measles epidemic nearly wiped out the Chumash back in the late 1700s.
They also brought colorful Venetian glass beads. So now if you’re a Mainland Chumash and you can trade for a white shell bead or colorful glass bead, what are you going to pick? So the Island Chumash economy began to collapse because their shell bead money value went down once these colorful glass beads were introduced.
Frani: Add to that, In 1815-16 timeframe there was a huge El Niño event that caused oceans temperature to rise. Not a lot just 3-5 degrees maybe, but enough to drive away marine life that likes cold nutrient-rich waters. For the Island Chumash who depended on seafood for survival, it was the proverbial final straw.
Joel: So your population is declining due to of disease; your economy is collapsing; your food sources are leaving; by 1822 the lasts of the Chumash left the Channel Islands.
Frani: An untimely ending to a long history. Numerous prehistoric artifacts on the islands suggest that the Chumash had flourished here for thousands of years. During the Pleistocene Era the sea level was at least 150 feet lower and the Northern Channel Islands were joined as one. In 1959, Philip Orr discovered three human bones on Santa Rosa Island which he named "Arlington Springs Man" for the location where found them.
Since his discovery, radiocarbon dating has determined that Arlington Springs Man was in fact "Arlington Springs Woman" and she lived 13,000 years ago making her remains potentially the oldest-known human skeleton in North America.
Her presence on an island shows that people even at this primitive time built rafts of some sort allowing them to cross the Santa Barbara Channel.
And crossing the channel can be treacherous. On a clear day, the mainland looks but a stone’s throw away, but when the channel’s famous thick fog rolls in, combined with its strong currents, even an experienced ship’s captain can get disoriented.
Joel: When California was first becoming a state they were finding gold up in the hills and there were a lot of steamship companies that moved people from the San Francisco area down to Panama. They would drop them off at the isthmus, before the canal was built obviously. People would get transported to the other side to pick another steamship to go to whatever their Atlantic seaboard location was.
And these steamship companies the way they got business, the way they marketed themselves was how quickly they could get people from San Francisco to Panama or vice versa. Turns out the fastest route is to come down right here through the Santa Barbara Channel.
The Winfield Scott was a 225-foot sidewheel paddle steamship and it left San Francisco on December 1, 1853. There were close to 300 people aboard. The captain’s plan was to come thru the channel and cut in the passage between Anacapa and Santa Cruz. There's about a five-mile gap between the two islands. Unfortunately it was an extremely foggy night and his dead reckoning was a little bit off that night. He ended up steaming past the passage and when he made that slight turn to starboard he ended up steaming full-speed ahead into middle Anacapa island.
Frani: Fortunately all survived but the accident and subsequent shipwrecks pressured the government to provide more navigation aids. It took a while because of the daunting challenge in getting equipment up Anacapa’s steep cliffs.
Joel: Finally in 1912 they constructed the first lighthouse on the island.
Frani: So ships got the navigation aids they needed, but who was guarding the islands? Who was standing up for nature? By the late nineteenth century, sheep and cattle ranchers came as did fur trappers and the channel waters were aggressively harvested for fish and marine mammals.
Like the Galápagos Islands off South America, centuries of isolation had created astonishing biodiversity. But by the 20th century things were starting to unravel from overfishing and introduced plants and animals. Several species were on the brink of extinction and others such as the Santa Barbara Island Song Sparrow were lost forever.
Luckily a new ethic was emerging about our relationship to the environment and a different type of explorer began to come to the islands, this time armed with hiking boots, cameras and swim fins. They came to walk the pristine white sand dunes and torrey pine groves on Santa Rosa. To snorkel in the rich kelp forests or kayak into one of the hundreds of sea caves on Santa Cruz, the largest of which the Painted Cave has a cathedral 160 feet high. They brought their passion, their curiosity— and their awe and that led to new protections and special designations.
Joel: The park boundary extends one nautical mile around each of the islands so about fifty percent of our park is underwater. And the National Marine Sanctuary extends six nautical miles around each of the islands.
Frani: On top of that, within the marine sanctuary waters are 13 Marine Protected Areas where fishing, both commercial and recreational is banned. The protected areas are helping researchers to better understand marine ecosystems, not to mention attracting divers from all over the world who want to see the plentiful wildlife.
Joel: They’ve done studies every five years since and they are working for sure. Populations of targeted species like sheephead or the spiny lobsters that we have are quite abundant now in the Marine Protected Areas where they didn’t use to be. You go outside and you can see what things used to be like more.
Even the sea lions like we talked about earlier their populations are soaring. And that’s probably part of the reason why we’re seeing more of the predatory animals like the Orcas and the White Sharks.
As we sit at one of the many overlooks to watch brown pelicans dive into the water and sea lions sunning themselves on rocks, you realize there’s endless things to discover here. Whether you’re a researcher studying ocean acidification, a scientist trying to unravel the mysterious starfish die-off or just a kid exploring tidepools. You’re in a living laboratory. A natural history museum. And, given the rebounding wildlife you’re witnessing an example of our better nature. 💧
This piece is part of our on-going Radio Postcards series which give first-person accounts of environments
around the globe and their relationships with water.