Island Kingdom


Under the wings of our plane, a Britten Norman Islander, the Oxnard fruit pickers follow neat lines that divide the rich earth into civilized squares. Red bandannas and yellow sleeves move through the green rows. Flower beds and tiny lots with swimming pools and boats tucked in their slips in the marina are the last terrestrial grid before we are swallowed by blue. Then it is nothing but whitecaps and the Peter Pan shadow of the plane for 26 miles till we reach San Miguel, the most remote and therefore wildest and most mysterious of all the Channel Islands.

Not many people come to San Miguel in February. In fact, the 14-square-mile island, which has been a national park since 1980, boasts perhaps the fewest visitors of any National Park in the country--less than 1,000 a year. For one thing, it’s a six-hour boat ride (only researchers and park personnel can come in by plane). For another, the wind on the island averages around 25 knots. On this day it’s 40 knots, which in less than 24 hours can shape a human being almost as easily as it carves the plants and dunes and rocks of San Miguel. The body tries to go low by hunching or crouching. Forget about hair. You squint. Sometimes the wind rips the oxygen from your mouth before you can suck it into your lungs.

This time of year, besides a few brilliant blooms of coreopsis, the main attraction on San Miguel are the 50,000 elephant seals (more than half of the world’s population) that come here to breed on Point Bennett and a few of the other quiet coves. They arrive, in all their glory (males average 15 feet long and weigh about 3 tons, females 11 feet and a little more than 1 ton) sometime around Christmas from the North Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska, and are gone by early March, returning to shed their pelts again in the spring.


The story of the elephant seals is one of the happier chapters in the endangered-species book of the near-dead. Whaling captain Charles Scammon wrote in the early 1870s that elephant seals could be found breeding along the California coast from Point Reyes to Baja. Between the 1820s and the late 1860s, roughly four decades of brutal hunting (elephant seals are slow on land) by American and Mexican sealers, the species was widely thought to be extinct. In 1922, when, some biologists say, the population dropped as low as 20 animals, the Mexican government granted the species formal protected status, followed by the U.S.

We are shown around the island by Ian Williams, who has been the ranger on San Miguel for nine years. He is 40, with red hair and freckles. Though he grew up in Southern California hiking and diving as long, Williams is not your surfer, Navy SEAL, big-drawl, sports type. People who have worked with him for years say he is absolutely calm and very smart. They also say he knows just about everything there is to know about San Miguel. Just walking behind Williams in the 40-knot winds is an education. He keeps his fists balled and his arms swaying slightly from side to side. He walks very fast but stops for long breaks to show a view or a plant or wait for the sun to come from behind a cloud and change the color of the water.

“My goal in life was to get out of L.A.,” Williams says of a career path in the Park Service that took him to various historic parks in Texas and to Glacier park in Montana, and finally to San Miguel. When I suggest that he has been here long enough to deserve a formation named after him, Williams turns and says, “On San Miguel, that usually means someone died there.”

Islands Forged From Mountains

The Channel Islands are the summits of a submerged ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains. Anacapa (which means, roughly, “mirage” in the language of the Chumash Indians who originally lived on all the islands), Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel were once a single landmass, though even from 1,000 feet up, today, they have strikingly different topographies, colors and personalities. Though most of San Miguel is relatively flat (with the exception of two mountains, the highest 800 feet), for many of the hikes, the visitor must be accompanied by a ranger because of the site’s delicate ecology.

Around the island, the water color ranges from a mossy green to cerulean to Tahitian blue around shining white beaches. San Miguel basks in the axis of two currents: a cold one that moves down the coast from Alaska and a warm one coming up from Mexico. Upwelling and shelf areas underwater around the island create a variety of sheltered habitats for kelp and other plants. White waves thrash Prince Island and Castle Rock and other small rock formations off points and in coves. The plane dangles like a Christmas tree ornament, then drops onto a grassy, rutted runway on the southeastern side of the island, in Cuyler Harbor. The flag in front of the ranger station flaps a taut 90 degrees, its frayed edges whipsawed by the wind.

In the waters around the Channel Islands, some 80,000 sea lions, 12,000 fur seals, 50,000 elephant seals and 1,200 harbor seals--all pinnipeds, meaning fin-footed marine mammals--rest and nurse and play in the waves just miles from one of the most aggressively populated coastlines in the world. This week, marine biologist Bob DeLong is here with a team of colleagues and graduate students. DeLong, who has been coming to San Miguel for fieldwork for 30 years, has studied and written definitive papers on elephant seals and fur seals. He and Brent Stewart, along with Burney LeBoeuf, from UC Santa Cruz, tower in the literature on pinniped populations


Just a short but hair-raising walk in the wind a mile down the point is a sandy bluff where researchers can see the two coves where male elephant seals (bulls) guard their harems (which sometimes contain as many as 1,000 females) and females nurse their pups before the trip back to Alaska. Elephant seals are some of the deepest-diving marine mammals, plunging up to 4,000 feet, spending only 10% of their time at sea on the surface. DeLong is fascinated by their powers of celestial navigation. During migration, an elephant seal occasionally will spend several hours on the surface at first morning light or in the evening and then change course, he tells me as we sit on the bluff, staying low to avoid irritating the bulls. Like most scientists, a fascination laced with affection and a large measure of awe characterizes his description of elephant seal behavior.

Bulls With a Macho Ethos

Chaos reigns on the beach, though to the elephant seals it all makes perfect sense. Around every five minutes, it seems (in the morning and early evening, primarily) a lesser male will challenge the king of a particular harem. Bulls assume various postures indicating just how serious they are about crushing competitors, which hover on the fringes of harems. It is not uncommon for pups to be crushed by bulls fighting over females. The males make a sound like a Harley Davidson not at the top of its game; the pups screech like monkeys, and the females, drained from nursing, groan and bellow. Sea lions, which live here year-round, form discrete brown clusters between bull territories.

Before DeLong, research on elephant seals focused on the Darwinian struggle for survival, the aggressive nature of the bulls in their drive to reproduce. “Natural selection,” LeBoeuf wrote in his book, “Elephant Seals” (Boxwood Press, 1985), “has determined what they look like, has shaped their behavior and has even programmed their development. Virtually everything elephant seals do can be construed as an adaptation, an adjustment, an instrument, a strategy to maximize individual reproductive success.” DeLong, however, Mtalks about the rookery as a “system” in which bulls fight at the margins to “save energy and maintain tranquillity for the really important project at the center: females nursing pups” (pup mortality is 15% in the first month of life).

DeLong works for the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. Department of Commerce. He has also studied the effects of environmental pollutants such as the pesticide DDT and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl compounds used in electrical transformers and conductors) on various pinnipeds, though he insists his observations are “strictly associational.” He is now looking at cancer in California sea lions and the relationship between the herpes virus (sexually transmitted in pinnipeds) and environmental pollutants. A high incidence of the virus has been found in stranded adult females. Some current cancer research, he explains, reveals carcinogenesis as the result of two insults to the DNA, each fixed and replicated for cells to become cancerous: 1) a virus and 2) a pollutant such as dioxin, or some other known carcinogen.

DeLong walks like a maniac. “I love to walk,” he shouts above the wind when I pull up, gasping, behind him. “Eleven thousand years of human habitation!” he shouts. “And you’d hardly know it. It’s like the Pillsbury dough boy. Man pokes it, and it bounces right back.”

Land With a Storied Past

San Miguel is one of those painfully beautiful places that fights tooth and nail against man’s presence. First, it eludes facts. No two accounts seem to sport the same figures or interpretations of historical events, biology, geology or even weather. Did the explorer Cabrillo die here of gangrene after cutting his shin on nearby Prince Island in 1542? Or was it another island? There is a monument for him on a craggy barranca on the eastern side.


In 1587, Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino lost half his crew on an expedition to the Channel Islands. Then there is the classic slice of California coastal lore, the story of the Lester family, Herbert and Elizabeth and their daughters Betsy and Marianne, who lived here from 1930 to 1942 (Elizabeth Lester’s book, “The Legendary King of San Miguel” describes that time). Herbert Lester, the “King of San Miguel,” woke on the morning of June 18, 1942, took a gun from his gun collection, left his wife a note, walked to his favorite place on the island, a saddle beneath Devil’s Point, where the buckwheat blooms red and the Dudleya flaunts brilliant yellow flowers, and shot himself.

Was it because the Navy had threatened to evict him from the island? Was it because of failing health and old World War I wounds? Was it the effect of sulfa drugs that brought on a temporary blindness? The ranch house they lived in burned to the ground, after being hit by a wayward naval flare, in 1967. Today, only the living room chimney remains in a heap, along with a ghostly outline of rooms and a few sprouts from the once-giant fig tree outside the kitchen. Marianne, just 10 when her father died, has written a collection of poems about the island, titled “San Miguel Island and Other Poems.” Betsy, who was 8 when her father died, is now working on an account of her childhood there.

San Miguel is also covered in archeological sites, kitchen middens with shining abalone and mussel shell pieces from the roughly 100 Chumash who lived here for 1,100 years, until the last few were removed by the Spanish in the early 1800s. Sea water was colder then, and since water temperature affects the growth of shells such as the abalone’s, scientists are learning how to date shells looking at growth layers like tree rings in carbon-dating. “Taking a walk out here,” ranger Williams says of the bluff below Devil’s Point, where the Chumash village of Tuqan once stood, “is like taking a step back hundreds of years.”

In 1850, otter hunter George Nidever moved into an adobe house with his two sons (the remains of the Nidever adobe are still there) and 45 sheep. Within 12 years, there were 6,000 sheep on San Miguel, which forever changed the island’s topography and foliage. Sheep, unlike cattle, tear out roots when they graze, causing widespread erosion.

The last of the sheep were removed in the 1960s, but it has taken years for species such as the choreopsis, the restricted bedstraw species on the cliffs of Cuyler Harbor, the Beech spectacle pod (that botanist Ralph Hoffman from UC Santa Barbara died looking for in the 1930s when he fell off the cliff on what is now called Hoffman Point), the San Miguel Island loco weed and the blue-eyed grass, with its fragile blue flowers and yellow anthers, to face the wind again.

The island may be inhospitable to man (a matter, like Cabrillo’s death, of opinion), but San Miguel is a kind of sanctuary for marine mammals recovering from near extinction such as the elephant seal, and for indigenous plants that were wiped from the island by sheep grazing. In 1980, the Channel Islands were granted sanctuary status by the Carter administration, protection six miles around the coast of each island in addition to the national park status, which protected the islands themselves. Sanctuaries allow for a variety of uses, including recreation, research and conservation.


The Channel Islands Sanctuary, under the direction of Matt Pickett, is undergoing a review of its management plan, examining current boundaries and regulations. A Marine Reserves working group, a combination of scientists and fishermen (urchin, squid, and other) and recreational fishermen are recommending no-take zones, where sanctuary resources (such as the fragile rockfish population, among others) would be completely protected.

Even the Caliche Forest, another San Miguel attraction, is a testament to determination, transformation and recovery. Solidified calcium carbonate deposits cling to old tree roots, fish bones and other spiny things that nature appeared to be finished with, making eerie forests and ghostly white rocks that from a distance, look like sheep. A full moon on a Calichi forest on a February night is certainly a living thing in memory. All of San Miguel seems a kind of Noah’s Ark. If the elephant seals can spring back in 80 years, if the blue-eyed grass can bloom in this wind, if Herbert Lester’s daughter Marianne can write poems to the island her father died on, why then, there’s hope. There’s hope!