Thursday, August 23, 2012

Revisiting Mysterious San Nicolas Island

  Mystery, intrigue & historic tragedy. 



The Golden Seal


   
 
San Nicolas Island:

Home of those Long Ago Lost

                                                   By Marie Jarreau
Prison or Paradise?

I’ll long remember the day the twin-engine commercial contract airplane delivered me to the mysterious island on the latest of my US Navy air Traffic Control (ATC) assignments.
The roiling water below was blue-green as the aircraft dipped ever-closer towards the 10,000 foot long runway.
The airport sat just inland of the little fish shaped island’s east end. 
White washed waves of water met as if clapping into each other at the point of a sand spit that narrowed into the Pacific Ocean.
My heart was pounding with excitement – While others stationed there would see San Nicolas Island (SNI) as boring, tedious, humdrum, and isolated; this would be the most intriguing and inspiring place I had ever seen! 
  Little did I suspect the experience would have me reaching all the way  back to treasured memories from my youth for comparison and reference.

            As we turned onto the final approach for landing, my eyes peering through the wind scratched window, I could see dolphins in the deep blue water sliding through the waves that rushed toward the rocky and sandy shore. I’d been advised space on the island and the living quarters there would be limited and small, “Don’t bring a bunch of ‘stuff’ ” the assignment briefer told us.

So my ‘stuff’ went into a storage unit to wait until my 18 month obligation was completed and I’d head to my next duty station. Then again, I’d only taken this assignment with the understanding that I’d then be given a post at McMurdo Sound and the Navy’s Operation Deep Freeze on Antarctica. Ever since I’d fallen under the spell of photography years ago, I’d dreamed of one day capturing images of the Emperor, King and Adele Penguins with camera and lens – so who knew when I’d see my ‘stuff’ again!

The official ‘check-in’ to the SNI Outlying Landing Field (SNI-OLF) was the beginning of the orientation process and also served to ensure everyone new-to-the-island understood the rules and regulations of life there. Also part of the orientation was the safety briefing that specifically made note of the  dangers associated with life on SNI. Jagged rocky cliffs, high tides and a lack of beaches dictated strict rules against swimming, greatly limited fishing activities  and all but shut down most ideas of water or any beach based recreation. Anyone leaving the compound after duty hours to tour the island or catch a sunset, etc. was required to use the barracks log book to sign-out and sign-in upon returning to the compound. No one was allowed outside the compound after dark.

At three miles wide and just nine miles long, many considered San Nicolas Island more of prison than just another duty station. The work week for most of the Naval personnel (numbering roughly 50 to 75 people) and a few dozen civilian contractors, engineers, marine animal behaviorists and environmentalists was Monday through Friday.

The island was all but deserted by afternoon on Fridays as the majority of the work force flew home to the mainland at NAS Pt. Mugu, Santa Barbara to join their spouses and/or families, or simply to spend the weekend at what they called ‘getting back to civilization’. 

Throughout my 18 month tour, I came to love Fridays simply for the quiet and solitude  brought by the exodus. I chose to remain on the island along with the designated skeleton support crew, most of whom never left the barracks or compound area. Throughout the weekend I was free to roam and explore the island almost as if I were there alone. It was a priceless experience!

Danger on the Beach

I had arrived on the island on a Monday. It was just after dawn on Thursday morning, my first official duty day in the SNI Control Tower along with four other ATC crew members, that we received an alert: Search and Rescue would launch from the airport to search for two of the newly arrived station members. They had signed out to tour the island the previous afternoon but had not signed back in. They had not returned to their barracks that evening, and were believed to have gone fishing in one of the coves on the north side of SNI. One of the two men had arrived on the same flight that brought me to the island. The other had arrived only a week prior.


They were soon spotted by the crew of the Bell helicopter. One was still alive clinging to the body of the younger man and fighting to remain clear of the rough tidewater that had trapped them in the cove the night before. Both avid freshwater fishermen, they had been eager to try their hand at the big fish reportedly available before high tide. Both were inexperienced with Pacific surf fishing or with SNI’s slow rising tide. They had apparently not paid enough attention to the information put out during the safety briefing about the island coves which can be inconspicuously closed off by rising tides.


Suffering from exposure and exhaustion, the survivor was airlifted to the hospital at NAS Pt. Mugu. We learned from the report eventually filed that the anglers had been having a great time catching large fish and the high tide water had trapped them on a tiny beach area in the surrounding cliffs of the rocky cove before they knew what was happening. There was no way for them to climb out, and the rough waves were too high and too forceful for the men to swim around the rocks to safety. Their only chance for survival was to try to hang on to one another and to one large jutting boulder until the tide receded. This was early January, when even Southern California nights can be miserably cold. They had suffered and prayed throughout the night. At some point a huge wave came crashing in ripping them from the boulder on which they’d been clinging. The younger man had already drowned and been tossed deeper into the recess of the cove by the time the other managed to get to his body. As waves continued to pound into the cove the lone exhausted survivor was determined to not let the young man’s body be swept out to sea. In the report he attributed his own survival to that determination that they should both be returned to their families.

The survivor of the fatal fishing trip did not return to SNI. It was said that he was able to return to his family and to a different duty station, but that event left us all with a truer understanding of why the safety edicts were so forcefully stressed. Throughout my 18 months of exploring the island those two sailors were often on my mind as a reminder to keep safety first.

Using maps and aerial photographs available I familiarized myself with the landscape of the 3X9 mile island. A small but adequate library housed a number of books and periodicals offering photographs and information about the lay of the land, its seashore birds and animals and limited information about the mission of the military. Also of importance was learning about military operations area to be avoided. Different areas of the island had been used  and some areas were still being used as missile testing sites, etc. Some of those areas could contain unexploded ordinance.

My real fascination with the San Nicolas Island came several weekends into my tour of duty when I finally was able to secure the use of a jeep to actually start touring the island. Sunrise couldn’t happen fast enough on Saturday mornings. My photo backpack sat prepared with my Nikon manual exposure camera, lots of 35mm slide and negative film, water and snacks to hold me over till sundown.  My weekly log entries of departing the compound for specific areas on SNI became familiar entries even though the barracks staff became accustomed to my weekend treks. Occasionally, I was asked to provide tours for newcomers and eventually visiting dignitaries.  

The first time I toured the west end of the island alone was an eye opening experience. Sitting on a sandy, high bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, California sea lions barking far below me at the water’s edge, I discovered that I had been introduced to this little fish shaped island while I was still in junior high school. A sign, just off to my right and down towards the small cove displayed the words: CORAL COVE.

             It had been years since I’d read about Karana and Rontu in Scott O’Dell’s Young Adult book - Island of the Blue Dolphins. This had been one of my most favored of childhood books.  In an instant I realized that I was sitting on the very island from whose history the story of Karana had been taken.

            Racing back to the compound and to the library, I found more publications that confirmed my suspicion. Scott O’Dell’s book was there, as well as a number of publications from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History that presented fascinating details of the island’s history and of the people who, down through the centuries, had inhabited or had visited the island.

            In O’Dell’s telling of the tale: a young Chumash Indian girl named Karana had been left alone on the small island for 18 years. Her people called the island Ghalas-at. Her people had sailed away from the island that, for generations, they’d called their home.  Karana was left behind while trying to save her younger brother, as told by Odell’s tale. Karana’s people had always feared the wild dogs on the island. It was this fear that caused Karana’s concern for her brother and caused her to dive from the boat as it sailed eastward into an approaching storm with the rest of her people. In her attempt to save her brother she would be alone on the island for eighteen years.

            The excitement of a new adventure tingled inside of me as I stepped off the commuter flight. The small airport terminal was the same as others I’d seen around the country, but in making a turn around the island before we landed I’d already spotted rocky-beaches, coves, and sand-dunes that I was eager to explore.

            There wasn’t much air traffic to control, the commuter flight was the only regular air traffic to come near the island with an occasional aircraft fly-over on a training mission. With lots of time to spare, I eagerly took on the duty of island photographer and public relations officer.

            Most of my time was spent exploring the beaches that teemed with boulder sized great-gray elephant seals, sea lions, seagulls, cormorants, California brown Pelicans and whales ‘breaching’ off the west end!

            I spent hours watching massive waves of blue-green water, from strong currents that surround San Nicolas Island, being reduced to foamy bubbles as they settled into the sand in a continual game of  “kiss-the-beach.”       

            I sat one morning on a smooth gray rock in Coral Cove. I was basking in my good fortune to be on this beautiful Pacific island. While watching elephant seal cows nursing their new born calves I looked off across the deep water of the ocean, and as if some spirit from the depths of the water leaped into my soul, the sunlight sparkled in the water and was reflected in my eye!  I realized in that instant that I was sitting in the Coral Cove!

             I was sitting on the same rocks where Karana might have sat to watch whales, dolphins, or otters playing in kelp beds! My mind raced as I tried to think back to reading the story so many years ago!

            A visit to the island’s archives confirmed my discovery that the island on which I had arrived was indeed the Island of the Blue Dolphins. I also discovered that the story was taken from events that actually happened on the island. Karana was real!

            Locating Scott O’Dell’s book on a trip to the mainland at week’s end, I read it again and devoured every word. I learned through extensive research that a young woman had been left alone on the island just as O’Dell’s story said. Santa Barbara missionaries later named her Juana Maria.

            Over the course of the eighteen months that I was stationed on the SNI I tried to visit every location that was mentioned in the story.

            I went often to Coral Cove, and to the cave where Karana and Rontu hid when the seal hunters returned. I studied the slope of the headlands covered with yellow Coreopsis flowers as bright as the sun. I wondered how many times  Karana might have sat here at Vizcaino Point while the sun set like a red-hot platter in the evening sky.

            The long sand-spit of  Jehemy Beach on the east-end was one of my favorite spots. The Chumash who were Karana’s people must have used this location for gathering  fish or shellfish washed onto the beach in the strong  current. Here, the current from the north side and  the current from the south side of the island slap each other into great heights at the end of a long ‘breach’ of sand. The sand-spit is created as both currents race toward the mainland of California.

             I discovered Chumash Indian ‘kitchen middens or refuse-mounds, filled with years of debris of broken abalone shells, broken abalone shell-bowls, beads, and animal bones left behind from the time the Chumash lived on the island. Artifacts were easily seen throughout these middens. Small bits of abalone shell made into beads for jewelry, parts of fish hooks also carved from abalone shell glistened their iridescence in the sunlight. An awl, probably made of seal bone, lay wedged into the base of an abalone shell. Sharpened on one end, it must have been used for puncturing. Karana or another of her people might have used it to sew a cloth of seal skin or maybe for weaving a basket of reeds.

            Holding the ancient tool in my own hand gave me an eerie feeling! Who of Karana’s people had held this last? Might Karana herself had used the tool?

            Walking through the middens, I kept hoping to spot remnants of a black stone necklace. Scott O’Dell’s story tells of an Aleut woman, who accompanied the seal hunters. She had given Karana such a necklace.

            Often, on San Nicolas Island, the clouds were gray and the wind blew fiercely. At these times I thought of Karana especially, of when she and her people had lived their day to day life on their fish-shaped island home and of when she existed on the island alone. As I walked along the beach, the sounds that filled the air from the seagull rookery, the sounds of the seals and the roaring waves could be deafening. I tried to feel what Karana might have felt as she heard the same sounds in the mid-1800’s. Loneliness, fear, sorrow, self indulgence, or was it a sense of belonging? It was all here, whether you knew the story or not.

            There were no longer wild dogs on the island, but on several occasions I spotted and photographed the elusive little island fox - like the one Karana once caught in a trap, then nursed back to health only to send it back to the wild. I watched blue dolphins still leap and play as Karana had watched them just beyond the kelp beds. Except for the two wild dogs that had become her companions, the blue dolphins were Karana’s only friends. They are animals of good omen and  watching them had helped her to feel safe on the island without her family. When she was out at sea with the leaking canoe, it was a pod of blue dolphins that swam along with her and helped her feel ‘not-alone’ as she fought the sea to return to the island.                

            Sometimes standing alone at the headlands and looking into an orange-jeweled sunset, it was hard to keep the fiction of O’Dell’s story separated from the facts. Though I enjoyed the fictional account, I was even more intrigued with the historical information on the true account of the island’s Chumash Indian population and the young woman who was left on the island when her people were evacuated by Santa Barbara Missionaries in 1835.

            The evacuation was an attempt to save what was left of the island’s Chumash inhabitants before California sheep ranchers took possession of the island, to increase their grazing opportunities. The population of Indians had already dwindled to about 30-35 people over the years through contact with gun runners who visited the island, pirates, Russian and Alaskan seal hunters.        

            She was real. “Karana” was the name O’Dell had given her for his novel’s character, missionaries who later rescued the real ‘lost woman of the island,’ gave her the name ‘Juana Maria.’ Historical accounts note that, after discovering that her own small child was not on board, she jumped off the ship which was relocating her people to the mission to live. An ocean storm was brewing fast during the evacuation and the ship could not turn back for her. It was assumed that she was lost to the depths of the sea.

            Sheep were brought to the island to graze, but the woman is said to have eluded those who came periodically to check on the livestock through all those years.

            She survived alone on the island for 18 years. Juana Maria actually outlived her people who had been ‘rescued’. They were all dead of dysentery within 30 days after reaching Mission Santa Barbara because those who rescued them did not understand the importance of the traditional ‘wild-foods’ diet of the island natives.

             I walked the rocky beach of  Coral Cove often at dawn and often  well into the gray light of dusk. Had she walked here? Her footsteps had long ago been erased by strong winds and high tides but I felt her spirit in the island breeze. At these times, I could sense the loneliness that Juana Maria might have experienced after all the people, her family, had been taken away; her only child perished.

            Blue-green water charged into the rocks of the island when the tide came rushing in and I looked out across the sea at white clouds on the horizon, at least secure that no red-sails of the Russian seal hunters would come to disturb the island’s teeming sea animal population.

            The true story is even sadder than the tale of Karana.

            After 18 years alone on the island, Juana Maria was finally discovered and taken away to Santa Barbara. Like her people, within 30 days, she too had died of dysentery. The diet of the Santa Barbara community was too different, too rich, for the Chumash, who were accustomed to a diet of sea lion, whale, cormorant, tide-pool delicacies and native seeds and roots.

             Like the dolphins that Karana and I watched dancing along the kelp beds, her spirit lives on in the currents that caress the rocky shores of the island of San Nicolas.         

            After 18 months of searching for Karana’s footsteps in the shifting sand, I too had to leave the little fish-shaped island headed for Santa Barbara.  I was on to other Navy Assignments.

            My 18 month experience on San Nicolas Island, and the strength and perseverance I learned from Karana on the Island of the Blue Dolphins, is a jewel that I will always treasure. 

Ancient Deposits at the Sea Shore SNI

ELEPHANT SEALS BATTLING IN THE SURF !

The Blue and The Gray SNI Shore area

Tuna Crabs, Kelp, Anemone


















"Hope you come back for more."

* All photos and written works copyrighted by Marie Jarreau unless otherwise noted.

1 comment:

  1. Is there actually any coral at "Coral Cove"? I didn't know there was coral in that part of the Pacific. Why did Scott O'Dell name the cove that?

    ReplyDelete