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Literary Corner

Judith Dale: Santa Barbara Channel — and its islands

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  • 5 min to read

A neighbor who recently moved to the Santa Ynez Valley asked me about the Santa Barbara Channel and the islands she sees off the coast. I told her about the islands and realized how few facts I did know — even having grown up here.

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?

I knew the Chumash lived on the islands at one time, but why did they leave? I decided to do some research and was fascinated. I hope you enjoy this article as much as I enjoyed researching it. 

The Santa Barbara Channel

The Santa Barbara Channel is unique as it is one of the most biologically productive and diverse ecosystems in the world. This is caused by three factors: the channel is south-facing; two currents meet in the channel; and the wind patterns cause an upwelling of nutrients from the deep water to the surface.

Unlike most of coastal California, which faces due west and the open ocean, the coastal waters of the Santa Barbara Channel are on a south-facing coast and are located between two landmasses: the South Coastline and the Northern Channel Islands.

120820 Channel Islands map

The Santa Barbara Channel is unique as it is one of the most biologically productive and diverse ecosystems in the world.

In the western part of the channel, two currents meet — the cool Northern California current and warm Southern California countercurrent. This type of ecosystem is called a “transition zone,” which allows for a wide variety of plants and animals due to its warm and cold water. Also, upwelling — currents from the bottom of the ocean to the surface —provides unusually high concentrations of nutrients, especially macrozooplankton that contribute to the channel’s biological productivity and diversity. Wind patterns around Point Conception and the currents in the channel create these upwellings, which force deep, nutrient-rich ocean waters to rise up near to the surface.

Due to these factors, the Santa Barbara Channel has unparalleled species density and diversity, including numerous endangered, threatened and sensitive marine species such as blue, gray and humpback whales, southern sea otter, southern steelhead, marbled murrelet and brown pelican. The area is also home to acres of giant kelp beds and eelgrass meadows that provide habitat for hundreds of marine species.

Geology of the islands

There are two groups of Channel Islands: the Santa Barbara group consisting of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa. The Santa Catalina group is farther south and includes the islands of Santa Barbara, San Nicolas, Santa Catalina and San Clemente.

At one time, the Santa Barbara Channel Islands were connected by one of several Transverse Ranges that run east and west along the California coast, south of Point Conception, which are an extension of the Santa Monica Mountains that run along the Pacific coast behind Malibu. (The Santa Ynez, San Rafael and Sierra Madre Mountain Ranges are also Transverse Mountain Ranges.)

The Santa Barbara Channel Islands mountain range was separated into islands between 13,000 and 7,000 years ago when the Pacific Ocean rose 130 feet, completely covering parts of the range — only the highest peaks became what we now know as the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. When the Chumash first inhabited the islands, they were only 4 miles off the coast — an easy trip by tomol, a frameless, planked canoe made by the Chumash. Now, the nearest island is 12 miles away.

Early humans on the islands

One of the oldest dated human remains in North America was found at Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island by archaeologist Phil Orr in 1959. Recently, radiocarbon dating determined these human remains were from 13,000 years ago. They rank among the oldest securely dated human remains in North America. A host of archeological sites on the Channel Islands that date from 10,000 to 6,500 years ago indicate an early migration route from the Old World into North America along the West Coast. Both Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands had large Chumash villages as far back as 9,000 years ago. They had a highly complex society dependent on the marine harvest, craft specialization and trade with mainland groups. They produced shell beads used for currency, an essential part of the Chumash economy.

San Miguel Island aerial

San Miguel Island is the westernmost of the eight Channel Islands and bears the brunt of wind and waves from the Pacific Ocean. The island is surrounded by submerged rocks that present a hazard to boat captains but apparently didn’t faze the Chumash ancestors who plied its waters in sturdy tomols.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first European to sail up the California coast, visited the Channel Islands in 1542. He claimed the Channel Islands for Spain. Legend says that Cabrillo wintered and died on San Miguel Island. Other tales have it that he died on Santa Catalina Island from gangrene due to a broken shin bone. No one knows where Cabrillo died and is buried, but there is a memorial on San Miguel commemorating the explorer.

The next recorded visit by Europeans was in 1595 by Sabastian Rodriguez Cermeno. He wrote about his interaction with the Chumash on the south side of Santa Rosa Island:

“ … and there came alongside a small boat like a canoe, with two Indians in it rowing. And having arrived at the launch, they brought some 18 fish and a seal and gave them to us, for which we gave them some pieces of taffeta and cotton cloth in order that they should bring more. They went on shore and returned in the same boat with three Indians and brought nothing. At this island we went fishing with lines and caught some 30 fishlike cabrillas [sea bass], which we soon ate on account of our great hunger. On both [Santa Rosa Island and Santa Cruz Island] the land is bare and sterile, although inhabited by Indians, there are no ports or coves in them in which to take shelter. “

In 1769, the land-and-sea expedition of Don Gaspar de la Portola (the same explorer who discovered Gaviota Pass) visited Santa Cruz Island. His account is one of many by early Spanish explorers highlighting the friendliness, honesty, intelligence and industriousness of the Chumash.

For the next 200 years, explorers and traders visited the islands where they hunted otters, seals and sea lions for their pelts and oils. They also brought the European diseases that decimated the Chumash population.

By 1822, the Chumash were no longer living on the islands. Their numbers had been reduced by disease and battles with Aleut and Hawaiian otter hunters who were hired (or enslaved) by English, Russian and American companies who were after the furs. The islands also passed from Spanish rule to Mexican rule when Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821.

From the remaining island, Chumash were moved to San Buenaventura Mission in Ventura. The one exception was a woman on San Nicolas Island who left the evacuation ship when she realized her child was not onboard. Wild dogs killed her child, and she lived alone on the island for 18 years until she was discovered and brought to the mainland. She died six weeks later of dysentery due to the rich food she was not accustomed to eating. The book, "Island of the Blue Dolphins," by Scott O’Dell was written about her.

Post-Chumash era

Once the Chumash were removed from the islands, American settlers began sheep and cattle farming on the larger islands. During World War II, the US military took over the islands, built bases on some of them and used them as observation sites.

In my next article, I will give a historical overview of each of the five islands in the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary and San Nicolas Island. Each of the islands has a unique history due to its location, topography, and native plants and animals.

Meanwhile, as you drive over San Marcos Pass or along Highway 101, look out over the Santa Barbara Channel, enjoy the fantastic view and think about our rich history. Our area is unique in the world.

Series: Get to know the Central Coast a little better with the help of Judith Dale

Judith Dale has written several columns highlighting the culture, geography and history of the Central Coast. Get better acquainted with our beautiful slice of California with this collection of her work. 

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Judith Dale looks back to 1920, offering a timeline of progress the U.S. has made over the last 100 years. In most areas such as life expectancy, industry, technology, and position in the world, the U.S. has come a long way. However, many of the social/cultural challenges the country faced in the 1920s, are still with us today.

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Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at


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