This is the third and final article in a series covering the five islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park. The three remaining islands to be covered are Santa Cruz, Anacapa and Santa Barbara.
Santa Cruz Island
With a landmass of 96 square miles, Santa Cruz Island is the largest of all the California Channel Islands. It is 22 miles long, varies between 2 and 6 miles wide and encompasses 62,000 acres.
Santa Cruz was home to the largest population of island Chumash, who called the island Limuw, meaning “in the sea.” The Spanish named it Santa Cruz (Island of the Holy Cross) because, in 1769, Spanish missionaries from the de la Portola expedition mistakenly left a metal cross on the island. They assumed the Chumash would not give it back since iron was a coveted metal.
However, the Spanish were surprised when the next day, a Chumash canoe rowed out to their ship to return it. They were so impressed by the honesty of the natives that they named the island Santa Cruz.
The Spanish considered establishing a mission on the island to convert the natives. However, in 1782, Mission San Buenaventura was founded across the channel.
The Channel Islands are often referred to as the North American Galapagos Islands because of the 145 unique plants and animals found nowhere else on earth.
In 1822, the last of the Chumash were removed from Santa Cruz and sent to the mainland. With no permanent inhabitants, Santa Cruz served as a base for otter hunters, fishermen and smugglers. Smugglers Cove derived its name from these illegal activities.
All the Channel Islands provided smugglers and bootleggers with convenient and isolated hideaways to store their contraband for a time. This concerned the Mexican government who now owned the Channel Islands, so in 1839 California Gov. Jan Bautista Alvarado granted Santa Cruz Island to Andres Castillero.
Castillero hired an Englishman, Dr. James Shaw, to manage the island. Shaw started a sheep farming tradition on the island that lasted into the 1930s. In 1857, Castillero sold the island to William Barron, a San Francisco businessman. Shaw continued as manager and expanded the sheep ranching.
The Civil War increased the demand for wool, and by 1864 over 24,000 sheep grazed the hills and valleys of Santa Cruz Island. In 1869, Barron sold the island to a group of investors from San Francisco. One of the investors, Justinian Caire, bought out all other investors in the late 1880s.
Caire developed an impressive agricultural operation with satellite ranches throughout the island. The ranches produced wool and beef, wine, fruit and nut orchards, and flocks of foul. Over 100 workers were employed at the ranches.
I have been out to the islands on whale watching, kayaking, and hiking trips, but what did I really know about the Santa Barbara Channel itself and the history of the islands? How were they formed? What unique plants and animals live in the Channel and on the islands?
In 1937, Caire's descendants sold all but 6,000 acres to Los Angeles oilman Edwin Stanton. Stanton changed the ranch from sheep to cattle. The Stanton Ranch was a significant part of Santa Barbara County's cattle industry between the 1940s and 1980s.
Stanton died in 1964, and his son, Carey, died unexpectedly in 1987. The Stantons left their part of the ranch to the Nature Conservancy, which quickly liquidated the cattle operation and ended the island's ranching era.
In 2000, the Nature Conservancy transferred 8,500 acres to the Channel Islands National Park, which now owns 24% of the island. Along with the University of California Field Station and the Santa Cruz Island Foundation, these two organizations work to protect the island's natural and historical resources.
For rare plant and animal lovers, visiting Santa Cruz Island is a treat. The island is the most biodiverse of all the Channel Islands, having 60 animal and plant species.
Of the over 500 species of birds that breed in North America, only one, the island scrub-jay, occurs on a single island — Santa Cruz. This makes it the only island endemic bird species in North America. Compared to its mainland cousin, the Western scrub-jay, the island scrub-jay is larger, darker blue and has a distinctive call. It belongs to the family Corvidae, which includes crows and ravens, and is noted for its intelligence, memory and curiosity.
It is estimated that the island scrub-jay diverged into a unique species 150,000 years ago due to its isolation on Santa Cruz. It can live up to 20 years, is monogamous and may stay with a mate for its entire life. Many people visit Santa Cruz to observe the island scrub-jay.
The island also has two campgrounds, Scorpion Anchorage and Prisoners Harbor. With 96 square miles and 77 miles of coastline, there is much to explore on Santa Cruz. However, only 24% of the island is open to the public. The 76% owned by the Nature Conservancy is private and requires visitors to be part of a guided tour.
Anacapa Island is 5 miles long but only a quarter to a half-mile wide. It comprises three small islets, East, Middle and West, which are connected only at very low tides.
The Chumash called Anacapa "Anyapakh," meaning “mirage,” as it changes shape when viewed at different times of the day and different tide levels. The entire island is only 1.1 square miles and 700 acres. It is the second smallest island and is only slightly larger than Santa Barbara Island. Only East Anacapa and one spot on West Anacapa (Frenchy’s Cove) are open to the public to protect sensitive seabird breeding and nesting habitats.
So far we are good in Santa Barbara County, but until the first major rain, we are still in danger as our last major fires were during the months of November (Cave Fire) and December (Thomas Fire).
A visit to East Anacapa is a great way to get a "taste" of visiting the islands. It is the closest to Ventura and offers kayaking excursions and hikes on short, easy trails. The sights include spring wildflowers, breeding gulls in the summer, a visitor's center and historic buildings, including a lighthouse. There are over 100 sea caves honeycombed inside its craggy, 300-foot-tall cliffs. When visiting, there are no beaches, so be prepared to climb 150 stairs to reach the visitor's center.
Since Anacapa has no source of freshwater, it was limited in its agricultural prospects. Sheep survived on the island but only a few at a time. By the 1930s, the few sheep had destroyed most native plants, and many died from lack of food and water, ending sheep ranching on the island.
The most illustrious resident of Anacapa Island was Raymond “Frenchy” Le Dreau. He came to the island in 1928, living as a fisherman and hermit. He sold fish and lobster to passing boats. Friends brought him food and supplies in return for lobster, abalone and conversation. He was an educated man and could discuss literature and sing an aria in a beautiful tenor voice.
During Prohibition, he made money by watching over liquor caches stored in Anacapa's caves by rumrunners and bootleggers. When the U.S. government created the Channel Islands National Monument in 1938, Frenchy stayed and became de facto caretaker of Anacapa Island. He had a real concern for the natural history and welfare of the island.
In 1956, at the age of 80, he had to leave the island after a fall that left him with severe injuries. He had lived on Anacapa for 28 years.
Santa Barbara Island
Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of all the islands off the California coast. It is only 1 square mile in size and encompasses 639 acres. It is also the most remote island in the Channel Islands National Park, located 55 miles from Ventura, 38 miles from the mainland and 24 miles from Catalina Island's west end. Its remote location and topography of cliffs and rocky beaches make it a perfect sanctuary for seabirds, seals and sea lions.
The island has no source of freshwater, so it was not a permanent Chumash settlement. However, evidence shows that back as far as 4,000 years ago, the Chumash made seasonal visits to the island to harvest shellfish and hunt seals. Up until the early 1900s, the only inhabitants of the island were squatters and passing fishermen.
With over 4 million acres having burned so far this year in California, we have not had any major fires in Santa Barbara County. But with all the hot weather we have had and no rain in months, we are still in danger.
In 1900, the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor began leasing the island for agricultural and recreation purposes. In 1914, Alvin Hyder leased the island for $250 a year and moved his family to the island. They constructed a series of concrete cisterns to store water and raised rabbits to sell for meat and pelts. The Hyders imported hundreds of purebred Belgian rabbits to the island and turned them loose. They also introduced a few sheep. Without water, farming was difficult as all freshwater had to be brought in by boat. In 1922, the Hyders gave up farming on the island and moved their livestock to a homestead in Cuyama Valley.
After the Hyders left, several attempts to lease and build resorts on the island were made, but none succeeded.
No significant improvements were made to the island until the government built a lighthouse in 1928 and a second in 1934. In 1942, the Army Signal Corps installed radar on the island. At the outbreak of World War II, the military ordered both lights to be shut down for the coastal blackout. They were turned back on in 1943 when the threat to Los Angeles Harbor was thought to be over. The Navy set up coastal lookout stations on Santa Barbara Island to help prevent surprise attacks on the mainland.
After the war, the government ignored the island, and the growing rabbit population and vandalism became significant problems. In 1980, Santa Barbara Island became part of the Channel Islands National Park. The rabbits were removed, and vandalism was stopped.
Today, extensive habitat restoration efforts are underway to increase the native plant and bird populations destroyed after the years of rabbit and sheep grazing. Visitors to the island can camp, hike trails, snorkel and kayak to see the beautiful environment this small, remote island has to offer.
The Channel Islands are like nowhere else on Earth. As you travel along the coast or over San Marcos Pass, look out and think of these islands with so much history and so many unique plants and animals. Better yet, visit the islands, even if just by a boat tour where you do not have to leave the boat. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.