I’ve been in love with the Channel Islands of California since I first read Scott O’Dell’s The Island of the Blue Dolphins as a little kid. The first time that I glimpsed them in person was on the horizon while on a family vacation. I was so fascinated in the shadows that came and went out on the ocean that I convinced my dad that we needed to see if there was a way to get to them, and a few days later we were on a day trip to Anacapa.
Since then, I have gone to camp on Catalina, snorkeled on Anacapa, kayaked on Santa Cruz, and hiked across Santa Rosa. But there are two Channel Islands that are off limits to visitors, San Nicolas and San Clemente. These are both owned by the Navy, and have active bases on them. So, going there as a casual camper or explorer is simply out of the question. Even so, I have been just as fascinated and in-love with these islands as the rest of the chain. This year I made a monumental effort to work as a short-term environmental contractor on San Nicolas so that I could finally experience this unique and amazing place.
But why drive for two days, volunteer three work days, and fly out into the middle of the ocean where no phones were allowed (for our group)? What’s so special about San Nicolas?
THE ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS
The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is one of the first chapter books that I remember reading. More importantly, it is the first book that I ever read with a female, Native American protagonist. This story started to open my eyes to the realities of American expansion on Native people. I also had the chance to look up to a female hero, something, which was rare at the time, particularly among the stories that I enjoyed most.
O’Dell tells the tale of Juana Maria (we will never know her real name), a Nicoleño woman who was left alone on San Nicolas island for 18 years. While his book is historical fiction, the story itself is real. Juana Maria’s people, had been living on San Nicolas for hundreds of years (possibly more). In the 1800s, they found themselves at the center of a brutal conflict when the Russian-American Company fur company targeted their home for its thriving otter populations. At some point, the RAC hunters on the island decided that the local people had killed one of their men and in response they massacred the residents.
After this, Juana Maria’s people were removed from their home, although the reasons for this are not clear. The boat, however, left her behind. Again, no one is entirely sure why she wasn’t taken with the rest of her people. Some say that a strong storm drove the boat away from the island before she could get aboard. Others believe that she leapt from the boat because she thought her younger brother had been forgotten.
A Survivor, Strength Unmatched
Utterly alone, Juana Maria survived for nearly two decades on San Nicolas. She built herself a home, and expertly utilized all the resources of the island to stay alive. A few footprints on the beach sand, and food left out to dry eventually led to her being found. After that, she was brought to the mainland. Sadly, the rest of her people did not await her there. She died only seven weeks after being reunited with society.
Juana Maria’s story is one of horrible tragedy, but as a person, I consider her a hero. While I can’t say what her own people thought of women, I believe that Juana Maria shocked the Europeans and Americans with her strength, ingenuity, and iron will to survive. She did what none of those people thought that she could. I will always see her as one of the great figures of female survivors and outdoor experts.
It was amazing to walk in her footsteps (so to speak) and see the island that she once called home.
OTTERS IN THE SOUTH
Otters were once common across the long coast of California. Thousands of them made their homes along the beaches that are now so famously loved by the West-coast enthusiasts. They played an essential role in the ecosystem of the coast. In the 18th and 19th Century, however, hunters killed them in such extreme numbers that they were considered extinct in California by the 1900s.
Luckily, this was not the case, as a single small population remained after the hunting efforts were ended. All of the current otters that live in California now came from those few that managed to survive. From a conservation scientist’s perspective this makes California’s otters vulnerable. Those left don’t have much by way of genetic variation. When genetic variation is low, diseases and environmental changes are more dangerous for a species. For example, more variation means that there is a greater chance that more individuals will have a natural immunity or ability to recover from an otherwise fatal disease.
Welcome Back To San Nicolas
In order to address this problem, US Fish and Wildlife decided that a second population of otters was needed. They chose San Nicolas Island for this purpose, and brought several otters there. They thought that the animals would be safe from any problems that arose in the north there. Unfortunately, everyone underestimated how far otters could travel. Most of the animals dropped off on San Nicolas actually swam home, across the open ocean and up the coast. Pretty amazing, if you ask me!
The project didn’t go as smoothly as wildlife managers were hoping, but there is a small population of otters on San Nicolas now. These little guys are some of the most special animals that anyone can see in southern California. It’s only fitting that they can now make the Island of the Blue Dolphins their home once more.
My Journey to San Nicolas
Last week I posted about my trip amazing trip to San Nicolas and the great work that the Channel Island Restoration team does.
Wow, this article indeed is very intriguing. I had never heard or read anything about this Island – once I read your post, I googled for more information on it 🙂
Awesome! I am glad that I can help spread the word about the Channel Islands in CA.
I love reading your blog! full of great information, and always a different perspective from what I would have. I look forward to your travels to see where you go next!
Thank you so much! <3 Your support means alot!
The story of Juana is so sad. I would love to visit this island where she survived on her own for decades. I’m curious as to why she died only seven weeks after being reunited with society? Did she fall ill?
It isn’t really clear why she died; I think there are different reasons that people listed. However, it does seem that she got sick shortly after arriving on the mainland.
Sea otters are my favorite! This is a part of California that I’ve always wanted to explore. One of these days, I’ll get over there to check it all out and now I know where to go.
It is very hard to get to San Nicolas, because you can only go there as a Navy contractor. However, Monterey, CA has otters!
Wow I’ve never even heard of this place! It sounds incredible and the otters are just so cute!
It was an amazingly unique place. I love it!
Wow, what a great experience! I have heard so much about this part of California and your experience has just convinced me that I need to go there soon to see it for myself. Thank you for sharing.
Yes! Definitely check out the Channel Islands!
I’ve never heard of the Channel Islands in CA. Juana’s story is indeed tragic, and I can understand why you consider her a hero. Happy to read the sea otters are making a comeback. Do you think that St. Nicholas will ever be open to tourism?
I doubt it? And I sort of hope that it won’t be. The other islands are open for people to visit, and it isn’t impossible to get to San Nicolas. You just need to really be devoted to getting there and be willing to give some time and love to the Channel Islands Restoration organization (which is absolutely amazing).
This is such a lovely story! Thank you so much for sharing this. Otters are such cute animals. The next time I’m in California, I will have to visit this place. The way that you shared the history of this place and Juana Maria’s story was so beautiful. Will pin this to my US Travel Destination board. ~Elizabeth
Thank you so much! Sadly San Nicolas is not really open for visitors, but the other Channel Islands are!
Not aware of this part of California. But I have chances to be there. Thanks for telling us.
You will love the Channel Islands if you visit! They are amazing!
That a really interesting blog.i loved reading it and was not aware about this story. Thanks for sharing
Glad I could spread the story!
Fascinating — I had no idea about the Indigenous history of the Channel Islands. The story of Juana Maria is heartbreaking — I can’t believe she died so soon after reaching the mainland. It must’ve been a very rewarding trip to see an island with so much history that isn’t open to tourists.
It really was. I am so happy that I had the chance to go, and support the environment on the island at the same time.
I remember reading this book when I was like 8! I have no idea how it made it into my young hands, but it’s a book that has stuck with me ever since then. I had no idea that there is an actual place and not just in my mind
I had no idea that it was real until a few years ago! I really loved that book as a kid.
Oh my, I love Otters! Would so love to see them in the wild, I’d heard they were in California!
Yes! It was really amazing to see one out there, playing in the water.
This was such an interesting read. I remember reading and loving The Island of the Blue Dolphins as a kid, but had completely forgotten about it until this! Now I’m sad I never looked up the history of it. Thank you for introducing me to such an amazing place! I’m glad organisations like Channel Island Restoration exist to help protect these places for future generations (open to the public or not, it’s still an important place to preserve)!
I really agree about your last point. It might even be especially important to protect those places because they represent something so unique and hard to find these days.
I had never heard this story before. How sad to live only seven weeks after being reunited with people.
It really is tragic. The best we can do is honor her memory now.
Lovely, well-researched story! Hadn’t heard about the island or its history yet 🙂 Tragic story of Juana Maria .
Thank you! I wish that Juana Maria’s story had ended more happily, but at least we can honor her now for being so strong.
Quite interesting read. I had no idea about this island. Would love to visit now.
Thank you! The Channel Islands are an amazing place!
One of my favorite books. It looks as magical as it sounded in the book.
I’d say that it underlines the harshness of the environment that she had to survive, but there is certainly a magical quality about the island.
I have to read The Island of the Blue Dolphins now. Thanks for the recommendation. The otters photos are adorable by the way.
Yes! Definitely read it! It is book for younger readers, but I am sure that you will enjoy it just the same.
Super interesting tidbits about the island! This makes me want to visit this place.
Thank you! The Channel Islands are one of my all time favorite places, so I hope you get to visit one of them in the future. 😀
Thanks for your book recommendation. I will add this to my book list. The otter is good enough I am sold!
The book is for younger readers, but I am sure that you will enjoy it just the same. If you want something for older readers, there are some great books out there about the real story of Juana Maria.
What a fascinating story and legacy. I will get the book for some of my young readers.
It would be great to see more people read this book!
Thanks for writing a post on this place! Never heard of it before, but its now on my list 🙂 – I adoooore otters!
I always love to share about the wonder of the Channel Islands!