The Channel Islands: CA's Continual Old West

by Kirsten Anderberg


Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands, from the beach at Ventura, CA (Photo: K. Anderberg 2008)

The Channel Islands lie on the Continental Shelf of North America and are made from a mixture of volcanic activity, combined with seismic activity which raised and lowered the sea level. Deep channels and underwater canyons between the islands and the mainland and between the islands themselves, gave the islands their name.

The Northern Channel Islands are composed of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa Islands. The Southern Channel Islands are Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara, San Nicolas, and San Clemente Islands. From largest to smallest: Santa Cruz (approx. 96 sq. miles), Santa Rosa (84), Santa Catalina (75), San Clemente (56), San Nicolas (22), San Miguel (14), Anacapa (1.1), Santa Barbara (1). Until the United States Coast Survey examined these islands in detail in the early 1800's, there was no accurate map of the area. On all maps as recent as 1850, an island named San Juan was located in the area, and upon a Mexican government map of CA dated 1847, it said there were 12 islands in the area, and had the locations grossly off point. (L.A.Times, Jan. 1, 1895, p. 2) All of the Channel Islands are higher on the southeastern ends. (L.A.Times, Jan. 1, 1895, p.2)

I see the Channel Islands almost daily from my home in Ventura, CA. They are intriguing in many ways, as their clarity changes day to day due to weather, and they shape shift due to this. They also are an interesting group of objects that separate a vast horizon of sea from me and the sunset. The sun can light them up in strange ways during sunsets and they are even more amazing up close via boat from the mainland. My father used to take me to Catalina Island regularly as a child (via boat and small plane), and I see Catalina as I swim in Malibu quite often. The Channel Islands are a part of my daily life thus I have become more and more interested in them as I get older and understand the importance of things such as geology and history. I am not a scientist, I am a journalist and historian. I have created this and the other individual webpages for each of the Channel Islands out of a passion for geology, a love of nature, a healthy curiosity about local history, and a consistent leaning towards public access journalism. For relaxation, I love to read old books from the early 1900's about the Channel Islands. I find old gems in my local libraries, things libraries far from here would not have. I hope you will come to appreciate the natural wonders of the Channel Islands as I have! Check out the links below to read what I have been able to find out about the individual islands themselves...


Arch Rock on Eastern Anacapa Island (Photo: K. Anderberg 2009)

ANACAPA ISLAND
Anacapa is one of two islands in Ventura County (San Nicolas is the other). This island is at the eastern edge of the channel, where it gets to be only 11 miles wide, thus this island was problematic in "thick" weather and the site of many shipwrecks. By 1895, there was a lighthouse on Anacapa for this reason, along with a "fog-whistle" at Port Hueneme so that ships could try to cling to the shore and the fog horn in a storm. The "island" is really the "narrow backbone" of three rocky islands, extending in a northeasterly direction, for about 5 miles. The west end of Anacapa is 980 feet above sea level, and is nearly 3 miles long. The middle portion is separated "by a gap ten feet wide that boats can pass through. It rises to 320 feet high, and is about 2 miles long and 500 yards wide. The eastern part is about a mile long, 500 yards wide, and its highest peak is 260 feet above sea level. The gap separating the eastern and middle portions is 200 yards wide, but is so rocky, it is impassible by boats, which can only land on the north side of the island (as of 1895)." (LATimes, The Islands of the Sea, Jan. 1, 1895, p.2.) You can visit this island, now a National Park, via local charter boats out of Ventura and Channel Island Harbors year round. Read More...

SAN NICHOLAS ISLAND
San Nicholas Island is located in Ventura County, and is currently a U.S. Military base and off limits to the public. This island first got my attention when I heard the story of a woman who lived there for 18 years alone. Wanting more information on this story, I began to investigate. The woman, named "Juana Maria" upon her "rescue," by the padres of the Santa Barbara Mission, had a very unusual life. As a matter of fact, her life is the basis for the fictional book, "Island of the Blue Dolphins." San Nicholas Island is 9 miles long and 4 miles wide, and is in Ventura County. The island gets just over 8 inches of rain a year. The California Missions Resource Center reports when Juan Cabrillo landed on San Nicholas Island on Dec. 6, 1603, he said it was "densely populated." It is one of the smallest Channel Islands, and is one of the most inhospitable of the islands due to few plants, no trees, few animals, coastlines of rock with no protected harbors, and no permanent springs, although there were fresh water springs. Read More...

SANTA CATALINA ISLAND
This island sits in Los Angeles County, 19 miles west of San Pedro, CA. It is 18 miles long. The northwestern side of the island is 2 miles wide, while the southwestern side is 4 miles wide, with the widest part of the island measuring 7 miles and the narrowest part of the island measuring 1/2 mile wide. It is a "rough and mountainous" island, with 46 miles of shoreline around it. "Connecting the eastern and western portions of the island, known as the "Isthmus," is only about 33 feet above the sea, and was marked, as the report states, by a large white building, formerly the United States barracks." The hills rise 1000 feet on either side of the Isthmus, and the southern cliffs are said to be abrupt while the northern side has high cliffs with canyons and "several indentations." Corn grinders and earthenware were found on the north shore, about 4 miles east of the Isthmus and its highest point is 2110 feet above sea level. In an 1895 L.A. Times article, it says, "the island is a favorite resort for excursionists" foretelling its future. Read More...

SANTA CRUZ ISLAND
This is the largest of the islands and lies about 21 miles off the coast from Santa Barbara, CA. (It is in Santa Barbara County, as well.) You can visit this island, which is now a National Park, via public chartered boats from Ventura and Channel Islands Harbors year round. The picture at the top of this page is of Santa Cruz Island from Seaward Beach in Ventura. The island is about 21 miles long and 4 miles wide. "Its eastern part is is extremely irregular, barren and destitute of water." The shores are rocky and jagged, with a lot of coarse "dark gray sandstone, crumbling and rotten." The highest peak is 1520 feet above sea level. There is a "Gull Island" patch of rocks, underwater, off the south of the island, and also an "deep submarine valley" to the southeast of the island, but the north side of the island has no underwater anomalies. There is also a cluster of "outlying islets," a mile from shore to the south, the highest of which is 150 feet. Read More...

SANTA BARBARA ISLAND
This is one of the two smallest islands in the group. It is about 1 1/2 miles long and 1 mile wide. You can visit this island via public chartered boats from Ventura and Channel Islands Harbors from April to October. This island is in Santa Barbara County and is about half way between San Clemente and Santa Cruz Islands. The island is said to be "very bold and high on every side and presents precipitous cliffs to the full force of the ocean swells. The bluffs are honeycombed with great caverns into which the sea breaks with a loud noise. Kelp surrounds the island..." Landing on this island was said to be difficult at all times and only two points of entry were possible in 1895: the better landing was on the east a mile from the south point and you could also land on the north side of the western point of the island. "It is said that no water has ever been found on the island." Read More...

SAN MIGUEL ISLAND
San Miguel Island is located in Santa Barbara County. This island is currently part of the National Parks system and there are public chartered boats to the island from Ventura and Channel Island Harbors from May through October. Read More...

SANTA ROSA ISLAND
Santa Rosa Island is located in Santa Barbara County. This island is currently part of the National Parks system and can be visited via public chartered boats from Ventura and Channel Islands Harbors from April through October. Read More...

SAN CLEMENTE ISLAND
San Celement Island lies approx. 45 miles from San Pedro, CA. and is located in Los Angeles County. It is currently a U.S. Military base. The island is 18 and a half miles long and about 2 1/2 miles wide on average, and its highest peak is 1964 feet above sea level. Like the other islands, its southeastern side is higher. There was more vegetation in the southeastern part of this island, thus this was the area sheep grazed in. Read More...

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Channel Islands Bibliography (used for this and the other Channel Island pages):
California's Channel Islands, 1001 Questions Answered by Marla Daily, 1987, McNally & Loftin, Publishers: Santa Barbara, CA.
Channel Islands National Park, A Photographic Interpretation by Tim Hauf, 1996, Tim Hauf Photography: Somis, CA.
Channel Islands of CA Wikipedia Page (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Channel_Islands_of_California), accessed January 3, 2010.
Los Angeles Times Archives available online from several sources, such as ProQuest at the Ventura Public Library.
Santa Cruz Island Anthology edited by Marla Daily, 1989, Santa Cruz Island Foundation: Santa Barbara, CA.
Sea Caves of Anacapa Island by David Bunnell, 1993, McNally & Loftin, Publishers: Santa Barbara, CA.


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