Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cuyler Harbour, San Miguel Island

We left Cojo under sunny skies with a delightful 10 knot wind – unfortunately not in the direction we wanted to go, but close enough. We set a broad reach across the Santa Barbara Channel and enjoyed a relaxing sail. After a while we had to head east to reach our destination, so did a power assist to arrive at the anchorage in Cuyler Harbour mid afternoon. As we approached the island, the sun disappeared behind the descending clouds, and it wasn’t until we were almost abeam Wilson Rock that we could distinguish the outline of Harris Point. Through the drizzle we saw the flukes of whales, seals, sea lions, pelicans and many other sea birds. The entire place was devoid of humans, but teaming with wildlife in a scene right out of a movie.

Approaching San Miguel Island in the drizzle

We threaded our way through kelp beds to drop our anchor in 10 meters on a sandy bottom. The water was crystal clear and a translucent green colour. It really felt like we were at the end of the earth – very, very hard to believe that less than 50 miles away millions of people went about their daily business.

Ka'sala and Silas Crosby at Cuyler Harbour

We tucked in behind the bluff which sheltered us from the prevailing westerly swell. On the other side a white sand beach stretched away into the distance and we could hear the perpetual barks and snorts of the sea lions that were sleeping just above the water line.

Beach looking toward where the boats are anchored, Harris Point in the distance

This time, however, we could hear a curious twittering sound emanating from them which we later discovered came from elephant seals.

Sea lions on the beach

Elephant Seals

Soon after we anchored, Silas Crosby joined us and, later, a lobster fishing boat dropped a hook at dusk and was gone by dawn the next day.

Beach, looking away from anchorage

The only fly in the ointment came when a very officious fully armed and uniformed fisheries officer came by to see who we were, why we were there, where we were going, if we had checked in with the Border Protection Agency (division of Homeland Security) and if we were aware of the marine reserves nearby, did we have a fishing license, etc., etc.. He asked the same questions of Silas Crosby, then returned to his high powered boat and roared off into the distance.

Doug at Cuyler Harbour

Next morning, Meredith, Steve, Doug and myself loaded up in Steve’s folding dinghy (I still can’t believe it floats or won’t suddenly tip us into the sea!) and we followed the surf into the shore.

Beach landing at Mutiny on the Bounty movie site - Silas Crosby and Ka'sala in distance

 Both Steve and Meredith are pros at landing dinghies in the surf so we arrived more or less dry. Our only concern was the two sea lion bulls who decided to get into a fight very near our planned landing site. It was pretty spectacular to see them throwing themselves at each other’s chests and making furious growls and grunts. I didn’t see it, but based on the scars I later saw on them, I don’t doubt they were biting each other as well.

We drew the dinghy high up on the pristine beach nearby several large palm trees that had apparently been planted when the harbor was used as a movie set for the 1935 Academy Best Picture production of Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton. The sea lions backed off, but watched our every move. When we returned to the dinghy several hours later we could see by the marks in the sand that one of the bulls had slithered over to check it out. We headed off along the shoreline until we came to the path leading to the ranger station high up on the hill.

Steve on the trail

We followed a narrow trail up through a garden of succulent plants, mostly dormant at this time of the year.  We later saw photographs of them in the spring - spectacular yellow blooms, though they look like a wasteland in this picture.

 Along the way we stopped at the monument to Juan Rodrigues Cabrillo, the Portuguese/Spaniard who, in 1542, was the first European to land in the area.

Onward, we continued on to the ranger station, passing the remains of a ranch, with an interesting history, along the way. (If you want more information on San Miguel and any of the other Channel Islands, visit this site:

Isolated ranger station at San Miguel - Harris Point in background

We arrived at the seemingly deserted station perched on a plain high on the bluffs and next to a dirt airstrip. We knocked on doors and finally a young man came out to greet us. It turned out the rangers were away and James Howard, an environmental technician working on the repopulation of island foxes, was there in their stead.

Steve and Jim Howard with fox skull

We spent the next three hours with Jim as he explained for us the history of the island from the early Chumash inhabitants ( for their fascinating history), to the Spanish (, the ranchers, the US Navy and, finally, the careful environmental restoration of the island.   Thank you, Jim!

By the end of the second world war, San Miguel was devastated by over grazing and other activities. An ariel photo we saw in the ranger station that was taken at this time shows the island as a huge sand dune. Today, it is lush with succulents and other plants carefully reintroduced and cultivated, as well as the island fox breeding program by the Channel Island National Parks that Jim is involved in.  ( ). These ventures seem to be thriving as the windswept island is slowly coming back to life (people visiting must stick to the trails and be accompanied by a ranger or designate) and the fox population has increased to about 350 animals, close to the 500 the NPS believes is needed for perpetuation of the species.
Flora reclaiming on the spine of the island

Erosion is still a concern

We wandered over the spine of the island to view the caliche forest to view the calcified forest that once grew all over the island.

Caliche Forest

calcified tree trunk later sighted on the beach

On our way back we watched Jim monitor his foxes with an antennae and a VHF radio, then returned to the station, via the gully, before descending once more to the beach.

Steve at the gully, or was that the "billy"?

The tide was out and we couldn’t resist continuing along the sandy shores, beachcombing, looking in caves, watching the surf and listening to the surge of the waves. San Miguel is a place so special, so unique it is well worth making it a stop en route to San Diego if the weather cooperates.

Natural mosaics

Chillin" on the beach

Thank you Steve for inspiring us to go to this amazing place.

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