Why are the Channel Islands getting so popular?

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Many Santa Barbarans spend their lives appreciating the view of the Channel Islands off our coast, but never make the trip. That might be changing. KCRW listener Anastasia Poland from Ventura asked Curious Coast this:

“I’ve heard that the Channel Islands National Park is seeing an unprecedented number of visitors this past year. Why do you think that is?”

Indeed, Anastasia is correct. According to the National Park’s website, visitors to the five islands increased by 13 percent in 2016, with a total of 342,209 people either taking in a day visit or choosing to camp overnight.

One reason for this was a marketing push celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service Act, signed by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916. Grants from National Park Foundation, National Park Trust, and National Marine Sanctuary Foundation helped thousands of fourth graders visit the Channel Islands National Park for free, and the number of park volunteers increased by 25 percent.

Another reason: San Miguel Island, the Park’s westernmost island, and also one of the most untouched, reopened last year after a two-year closure. The Navy, which owns the island, had used it in past decades for artillery practice and took those two years to search for unexploded bombs. (They found none.)

We’ve received other Channel Island questions from listeners, like this batch from Nicholas Porter:

“What is the history of the Channel Islands? Why is it not developed? Is there surf? Is it a Great White breeding ground?”

For those last two questions, we can return to San Miguel Island. Surfers named a large open-wave area two miles off the coast “Shark Park.”  The sharks are attracted by San Miguel’s most populous residents: 100,000 seals and sea lions, one of the largest rookeries in the world. That’s a good lunch for a growing shark. “Breeding ground” might be too strong a phrase for the area. But do a lot of sharks spend much of the year near the islands? Yes.

And yes, there are plenty of surf spots on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Islands. All are remote and require either a hike or a personal boat to access them. Popular spots include Skunk Point, Chinese Harbor, and Marmetta, but none of them are for beginners.

Channel Islands history

Unlike Santa Catalina Island, which was developed early in the 20th century as a getaway for the rich and famous and is the only island with a city (Avalon), the five Channel Islands in the National Park have stayed relatively wild.

That’s not to say it’s been devoid of humans. Some of the oldest human remains in North America–some 13,000 years ago–were discovered on Santa Rosa Island. Many Chumash lived on the islands, with the last of them leaving for the mainland in 1822. Spanish explorers visited (and named) the islands from the 16th century onward, and ownership of the eight islands has gone from Mexico to the United States once California became a state. From then on, many parts were leased to ranchers.

However, the inaccessibility of much of the islands, their harsh conditions and limited fresh water supply meant it was always a hardscrabble life even at its most profitable, from raising sheep and cattle to killing otters during the 19th century fur trade. The islands all have delicate ecosystems, so introduced species would often just as quickly die off.

Attempts to turn one of the islands into a kind of resort in the early 1900s failed, as did attempts to find oil. In 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated Anacapa and Santa Barbara Islands as National Monuments, and in 1980, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz were added to the National Park. The other three islands not in the Park are privately owned. The Navy owns San Clemente and San Nicholas, the former of which features a fake city where Navy Seals train for operations like the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound.

For an in-depth history of each island in the National Park, the Park Service has an excellent and exhaustive series of pages about Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa islands. 

However, to really appreciate the area’s beauty, check out this three-hour documentary from 2016 on the National Park, West of the West. Here’s the trailer, and you can read about the film here.

Meanwhile, while you ponder your next camping trip, you can also watch an underwater live webcam from kelp beds off of Anacapa Island below.

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Curious Coast is a project made possible by the supporters of KCRW and a grant from Antioch University Santa Barbara.