Visiting San Nicolas Island off of the coast of California is no easy feat. There’s really only one way, working for the Navy in some capacity. So, managing to get on a trip with Channel Islands Restoration, an organization that is contracted for environmental restoration on San Nicolas, was a huge opportunity. The following is my trip log for my journey out to the beautiful Island of the Blue Dolphins where I helped support CIR’s amazing work.
(Please note that NONE of the pictures in this post are mine. No photos of the island are allowed without permission from the Navy. Channel Island Restoration contractors are not allowed to bring cameras of any kind. If you would like to see more of San Nicolas, please look through William T. Reid’s photography over at his blog Stormbruiser.com. He has gratuitously allowed me to include a couple of his photos here. He has some really amazing shots of San Nicolas Island and more!)
The Journey to San Nicolas
Luckily, on the morning that I was flying out to the island, I managed to find the right meeting place. I was immediately greeted by a wonderful group of people. I really have to say, if you are interested in volunteering for the environment of the Channel Islands, I can’t sing the praises of Channel Islands Restoration enough. They are an amazing organization and I am really happy that I managed to get myself out to their trip.
After meeting up with the group, we made our way to the gateway to the base. From there, we drove to the little one-room airport terminal. I had no idea what to expect once we were there, but checking in was little different than when I had flown on the little plane to Vieques. Checking the weight of you and your bags.
A Special Flight
What was more complicated was the plane schedule itself, or rather… getting back and forth, because thick fog and heavy winds are common on San Nicolas. The planes flying out there can’t really deal with either. So, our group ended up waiting several hours in the terminal, along with everyone else on our flight and the one before ours, which had yet to leave.
When we did climb onto the plane, I was delighted to get a single seat next to the window. There were far too many clouds for me to see any of the Channel Islands on the journey. But I was happy to watch the wavering layer of water vapor float by as we got nearer and nearer to this forbidden island. I honestly never thought I would be visiting San Nicolas Island.
Welcome to the Island of the Blue Dolphins
As we landed, I got my first view of the desert island, and its characteristic flat mesa where little roads criss-crossed through the dry plant communities. Little buildings popped up here and there, boxy and defined by their utilitarian design. Once we landed, we pilled into a volunteer van and made our way to Nick Town. This is where all of the restaurants, barracks, and hotel rooms are. With a view of the ocean, I found this little Navy village to be inviting, if not vibrant and busy. I was also delighted to find out that the hotel there was extremely comfortable and even luxurious in comparison to many of the places that I stay.
Due to our delay at the airport, we took some time to hit up the little store in town. There I secured a gallon of drinking water and perused the sparsely stocked shelves for a souvenir. I settled on a wide, metal mug with the base logo on it.
Afterwards, we charged up for work by grabbing a cheap lunch at the cafeteria-esque Galley. Massive burritos were on offer and we all tucked in, enjoying the calories after our journey and hoping for it to carry us through the afternoon’s work.
Lending a Hand
Once we had finished, the lot of us headed out into the field. Channel Islands Restoration carries out work on several of California’s Channel Islands. They raise and plant native plants for a variety of projects seeking to bring the islands closer to their natural state. Many of the Channel Islands were used as ranches in the past, which caused and necessitated major environmental changes.
On this trip, our work was to go through an older planting area to weed out non-native plants (plants that were brought to the islands by American settlers, in this case) and check on temporary irrigation lines. The extra water is meant to give the native plants a foot up as they establish and have to compete with young non-native plants. In the end, it was hoped that this work would a have a two-fold positive impact. (1) It would create a stripe of native plants, and (2) it would stabilize the soil, which is particularly important in the often windy environment San Nicolas.
Learning More About the Plant Community
Luckily for me, it wasn’t back breaking work and we moved relatively fast. I also had the opportunity to work with one of the senior volunteers, who had been out to San Nicolas with Channel Islands Restoration many times before. She was a wonderful teacher, who patiently taught me each of the native plants and their non-native nemeses (which she lovingly referred to as “the bad guys”).
When we had finished for that day, our illustrious and kind volunteer coordinator (seriously, this guy was amazing; I think his job must be so difficult and he wears so many hats- scientist, restorationist, volunteer coordinator/trainer, and tour guide) pilled us all into the van and took us out to see some of the sights.
I wasn’t expecting to get to do this while visiting San Nicolas Island, so needless to say, I was delighted.
Sightseeing on San Nicolas
We took a road that cross the middle of the island and then curled around to the coast through forests of small trees called Giant Coreopsis. These eventually gave way to dunes and ice plants (non-native) as we came down from the central plateau of San Nicolas and moved towards the ocean. This area had previously been heavily impacted by ranching. At one point, there was hardly a plant left due to overgrazing. This caused the dunes to become wild, without any roots to slow them down.
Things are a bit better now. Without grazing pressure, plants (both native and non-native) have returned and stabilized many areas. Channel Islands Restoration and the Navy has been hard at work giving native plants a chance to come back. It has been a long journey and there is much further to go. But where ranch animals were dominating the landscape not too long ago, tiny Island Foxes now frolic in on an island which is slowly recovering its biodiversity.
San Nicolas is also a very important habitat for marine mammals such as elephant seals, sea lions, and even otters (it’s the only site in southern California that has a population of them after they were nearly hunted to extinction by fur traders). When they are out on the beach, people should keep their distance. These animals are very shy.
The Island Coast
Tranquility Beach, our first stop on our little tour, is a popular place for marine mammals. When we visited, however, it was deserted. So, under the watchful eye of our volunteer coordinator, we wandered out onto the sand. The air and sea were calm as we combed through shells we couldn’t take home, marveling at how beautiful they all were. The only sign that there had been elephant seals all over the beach in earlier weeks were the scraps of their shed fur that they had left behind.
Once we were done there, we continued driving around the island, where we passed through the driest area. I almost felt at home as we navigated down a road surrounded by cholla. We stopped at a loading pier where we stepped out to silently watch the sea lions far down on the beach. They didn’t notice us as we kept quiet, and two young pups frolicked with one another in the surf. It was a beautiful sight.
We topped the night off with a hearty dinner of burgers, salads, sandwiches and cookies at the restaurant in Nick Town. I can’t say how much I appreciated the soft, cozy bed of the hotel room when I finally returned for the night. No computer or phone to distract me from sleeping.
Locking the Keys in the Car
I took my breakfast in my room the next day, and met with the team for an early morning start on our project. Skilled from the day before, we worked quickly and before lunch we had finished up everything we needed to in the field. So we returned to the nursery where Channel Island Restoration raises the plants that they use for their projects on San Nicolas. We cleaned, and prepped tools for the next project before gathering our things to catch our flight off of the island in the mid-afternoon.
I had a minor heart attack when the keys got locked in our van, along with most people’s luggage. I was really afraid that we would miss our flight, as the small planes did not wait for late comers. Luckily, our volunteer coordinator and the island transportation head had us covered with the spare key. We made it on time to the airport.
But… ten minutes after everyone got checked in, it was announced that we wouldn’t be going anywhere that night. There had been an accident on the runway on the mainland, and the clean up would take some time. We had to settle in for a surprise extra night. Such are the risks one runs when visiting San Nicolas Island and other remote places like it.
Some Things Are Meant to Be
With my 7-8 hr drive home between me and home, whenever I could get a plane, plus work piling up, I found this a little distressing. But once again, our coordinator came to the rescue. He got us set up at the hotel again, and then took us out to one of the most special places on San Nicolas. Rock Crusher.
There we got to walk among the strange stone structures on the coast, and marvel at the endless break off the island in the ocean. We were all tired, and when we settled down to take in all of the beauty around us, a tiny otter surfaced in the kelp.
It seemed like a sign. Even though we were all stressed out, and weren’t planning to spend an extra night on the island, we were meant to be there. For me, it was a moment of pure beauty in which I found myself bathing in gratitude for the opportunity to be there, in that special, secluded place. I was grateful to have been given the chance to help Channel Island Restoration in their amazing mission, and lucky to have been with such an amazing group of people.
More Information on San Nicolas Island
For amazing photography of San Nicolas (and more) be sure to look through William T. Reid’s Stormbruiser blog!
If you’d like to donate your time or money to the effort to repair the environment of the Channel Islands, please visit Channel Islands Restoration to learn more about all the cool projects that they are working on.
We also have a guide to the Channel Islands chain if you’d like to know more.