Santa Catalina Island is one of 8 Santa Barbara Channel Islands stretching along the So. California coast. Catalina itself has a 120-million-year geological history. Early paleontologists assumed it was once attached to the mainland, but recent studies and more modern scientific methods have proven otherwise. Catalina, only 19 miles from the mainland at its closest point, sits on the Pacific tectonic plate, while most of California and the rest of the U.S. are on the North American plate. Plate movements and volcanic eruptions are mostly responsible for the formation of Catalina Island (though this is not consistently true of the other Channel Islands). The 2 most common types of Island rock are the result of this formation process: igneous (volcanic) and metamorphic (sedimentary rock that has changed under pressure, heat or chemical action). The Indians of the mainland used a descriptive phrase when they spoke of Catalina Island: Wexajmomte asunga wow-"mountain ranges that rise from the sea." Most of the Island consists of mountains interspersed with meadows and valleys. Black Jack at 2006 feet and Mt. Orizaba at 2097 feet are the two highest peaks. Some of the coastal cliffs fall abruptly to the sea leaving not even a path's space along the ocean, while in other areas the hills slope gently to sandy beaches below. The 21-mile-long Island lies in an E-W direction. On the western (or windward) side, the Pacific crashes against the tall rugged coast. Off the eastern (or lee) coast that faces the California mainland, the sea is calm and placid. The widest point on Catalina is at Long Point directly across from China Point on the windward side (approximately 7.5 miles). The E and W sides of the Island have a natural cleavage at Two Harbors-a half-mile wide isthmus 6 miles from the W end, which is the narrowest point. A deep, undersea ledge girdles the landmass of the Island, fostering a rich habitat for marine life. Catalina's steep canyon walls create a temperature and climate that have much to do with sustaining types of vegetation that are unique to the Island. water: Although surrounded by water, the drinkable kind has always been a problem for Catalina. In the early days the Indians and then the first settlers relied for their water needs mostly on the few natural springs scattered over the Island, and the few streams which still run to the sea after a good wet year. Today, the utility company maintains a dam, reservoir and pipeline to accommodate the Island's freshwater needs.
People have been living on Santa Catalina Island for at least 7,000 years. Archaeologists excavating on a limited scale at Little Harbor on the seaward side of the Island for the past 40 years keep coming up with earlier and earlier dates. They find evidence of increasingly complex material cultures with a strong maritime adaptation. These earlier groups of peoples exploited the rich resources of the sea--from abalone and other mollusks, to small and large fish, and marine mammals such as sea lions.
The semi-arid Island offered limited plant resources, so the Islanders traded sea products and, in later years, steatite for their other needs. The Islanders made the 20-mile voyage to the mainland (and to the other Channel Islands) in well-crafted plank canoes. Steatite (an easily carvable rock that does not crack when put in the fire) from Santa Catalina has been found in both mainland and Island sites throughout Southern California.
Over the millennia, as peoples migrated through California, different groups of Native Americans would have made their homes on the Island. For several thousand years before European contact, the Los Angeles basin and the Southern Channel Islands (Santa Catalina, San Clemente, and San Nicholas) appear to have been inhabited by peoples of linguistic affinity--the Takic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Various areas would have had their own dialects (more or less mutually unintelligible) of the same language family and would have shared other cultural traits.
Spanish Discovery - The Pimungans of Santa Catalina Island paddled out to greet the Spanish galleon that bore the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo to their shores on October 7, 1542. Just 50 years after Columbus first sailed into the Western Hemisphere, the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) had authorized an expedition up the coast of California in search of a passage to the Far East. The Pimungans were invited aboard ship and gifts were exchanged. It is not known which cove the Spanish ship anchored in. Cabrillo, of course, claimed the Island for the King of Spain. The visit was duly noted in the ship's log and the Island was given the name San Salvador, after Cabrillo's ship. Cabrillo sailed on up the coast after about half a day.
Except for the possible occasional sighting of the yearly Manila Galleon sailing down the coast on its return to New Spain from The Philippines, the Pimungans were left in peace until 1602. On November 24, the eve of St. Catherine's Day, the ship of the second Spanish explorer, Sebastian Viscaino, sighted the Island. Viscaino renamed it Santa Catalina in honor of Saint Catherine. His party stayed a day or two longer than Cabrillo and explored a bit on foot before sailing on. An Augustinian friar with the expedition said the first Catholic Mass on Santa Catalina. Relations with the Pimungans were amicable, although the Islanders became distressed when the sailors shot some Ravens, which held a special place in their world.
Yankee and English merchant ships soon began to appear as well, having sailed all the way around The Horn of South America laden with manufactured goods. They knew that the government of New Spain did not keep the California outposts well supplied and that the Friars and townspeople would often trade leather and tallow and even otter pelts for manufactured items although it was against the law.
When New Spain revolted from its mother country and became Mexico in 1820, California became a province in the new country. The Mexican government allowed trade with foreigners but levied a tariff on all goods imported into the country. (As there was no property or income tax at the time, this was their primary means of raising revenue for running the government.) However, the Mexican government still did not have enough ships to patrol the California coast.
Otter Hunters - The Pimungans began to feel the Spanish influence shortly after a series of Missions were built along the coast, starting in 1769, when Spain began to fear the encroachment by the Russians and English. No mission was built on the Island itself, but the Pimungans began to have other visitors. A staunch believer in the prevailing Mercantilist Theory, Spain did not allow its colonies to trade with foreigners. However, sea otter were plentiful around the Channel Islands and Russian and American sea otter hunters were eager to obtain their pelts, which brought high prices in China. By 1805, Russian, American, and Aleut otter hunters began appearing in Island waters in defiance of the Spanish government. The Spaniards did not have enough ships to patrol their territory, so the hunters were able to camp undetected and hunt.
Smugglers - Smugglers would put part of their cargoes ashore at Santa Catalina and then appear at the customs port to pay duty on the remaining cargo. They would then receive permission to trade up and down the coast--which they did, coming back to Catalina to replenish their stock with undeclared goods. Several smugglers blatantly set up warehouses on the Island and were admonished and fined by the Mexican authorities. The trade was still leather and tallow (and otter skins while the supply lasted) for manufactured goods. The leather and tallow was taken back to the East Coast or England to be turned into manufactured goods and perhaps journey around The Horn again.. By this time, the surviving Pimungans had left the island.
Mexican Land Grant - Santa Catalina Island was awarded by Mexican Governor Pio Pico to Thomas Robbins as a land grant in 1846, just four days before the United States invaded California. Robbins was a naturalized Mexican citizen who had been living in California for about 20 years and had performed various services for the government, mainly as a ship captain. Paying for services with land was customary, but ownership was provisional. To maintain his title, the grantee had to use the land. Robbins established a small rancho on the Island, but sold it in 1850 to Jose Maria Covarrubias, just two years after California became a part of the United States as the result of the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo.
Many people mistakenly believe that Catalina is a tropical island. Though the sun does shine an average of 267 days a year, its climate is in fact similar to the So. California coast. Thanks to cooling marine breezes, Catalina is generally moister and cooler in the summer months. In the winter, with help from the warm Japanese current, it's generally a few degrees milder. In the summer, the average temperature ranges from 70 to 76 degrees F. Variable in the winter, the temperature ranges from 49-63 degrees F depending on what the rains bring. The average rainfall is 14 inches per year, but the extremes can be great. Some years (as on the main land), there's as much as 30 inches of rain, while the drought years of 1977 and 1978 brought virtually none. The average water temperature in the winter is 56-59 F, in the summer 67-70. The winter months almost always bring a northeastern (Santa Ana) storm or two. These Santa Ana conditions can turn the calm Pacific into a raging sea. Its high winds are infrequent but dangerous; sometimes reaching 50 knots, they occur Nov.-March. Fog can be expected in all seasons, but in winter it covers a wider area and lasts longer. In May and June, Catalina hosts the fog till about noon. What many visitors consider Catalina's biggest attraction is the lack of smog. This is due to westerly winds and the Island's distance from the mainland.
Catalina's climate and steep canyons have much to do with the vegetation characteristic to the Island. Though the plant life is similar to the mainland, its resident species are slightly different. Some plant life that thrives on the Island today existed on the mainland 20,000 years ago, but as the mainland became drier many of those plants died out. Of approximately 600 species of plants on Catalina, 396 are native. trees: Early accounts by miners and settlers mention an abundance of pine trees. Yet, the pines introduced in re cent years haven't thrived on Catalina because of the frequent dry years.
BUFFALO: In 1924 when William Farnum, a Western moviemaker, was filming Zane Grey's "The Vanishing American," 14 head of buffalo were brought to the Island for the film. Rounding up the buffalo afterward was much too difficult, so in the end they were left to roam. By 1934 the herd had increased to 19; then 30, as additional buffalo were brought from Colorado to supplement the herd. Today's population is held to 400-500-the ideal number for the ecosystem. When the herd gets too large, buffalo are culled; the carcasses are sent to the mainland to be butchered and frozen, then shipped back as expensive hamburger-buffalo chili and burgers are sold at the Airport-In-The-Sky. When an old bull is challenged by a younger one a fierce battle generally follows. In most cases the old bull is run out of the herd. Considered a rogue, he thereafter roams the hills alone. When a bull finds an entry into Avalon it always causes unusual excitement. Early one morning in 1978 the town woke to see a rogue wandering down the beach in Avalon. Before anyone could do anything, he had trotted up Sumner St. and darted his way onto the Pitch and Putt golf course adjoining Avalon's elementary school. The whole affair soon turned into a noisy roundup with cheering children and a police car chasing the running bull back and forth the length of the golf course, trying to guide him through an opening in the brick wall that borders the area. The worn-out beast finally allowed the police to guide him through the gate, and he quickly fled toward the peaceful environment of the Interior. There is fencing at every entry into Avalon from the Interior and a large metal bump gate for cars. Ordinarily, this keeps the animals in the hills and out of town but as noted above there are exceptions.
DEER: Although anthropologist Kroeber briefly mentions deer in his 1925 "Handbook of Indians of California," many historians date the introduction of deer to Catalina in 1930, when 18 mule deer were brought to the Island for refuge by the California Fish and Game Commission. They too have adapted to the environment, multiplying to the point where deer hunts must be organized periodically to keep the population down. In years of little rain the deer come into town to feast on rose buds and other garden delicacies. During one severe drought the deer did exceptional damage. To avert total devastation, the animals were trapped in huge cages, shipped to the mainland and set free in a wild area where ample forage was available.
GOATS: The hills of Catalina Island are lined with a network of narrow paths. These are mostly goat trails. Since goat bones have not been found in the Indian kitchen middens, it's been assumed that they arrived after the Spanish era. Some historians claim Spanish explorers brought goats to insure a supply of meat for their travels. Naturalists now disagree with that idea, but another hasn't been suggested. Today the goats number in the thousands. Their coats vary from white to brown to black or a mixture of all three; the most common is the shaggy black goat. Some billies have large horn-spreads measuring three feet and more. These ornery animals command the sheerest cliffs, and frequently climb down to the water's edge to lick salt from the ocean-sprayed rocks. You're sure to spot Catalina goats in the interior. Sometimes a whole herd will be scattered across the brow of a hill-dark dots against the golden grass. Often they'll be grazing along with a herd of buffalo.
WILD BOAR: The wild boar (pig) was introduced to Catalina in the mid-1920s to hold down the rattlesnake population. These huge pigs are mean, and have multiplied into the thousands. Though generally anxious to escape a human confrontation, they will almost always fight to protect their young. They occasionally come into Avalon and damage the golf course by digging up the greens, but for the most part they stay in the backcountry to run loose on the roughly 42,000 acres at their disposal. To keep the herds down, boar and goat hunts are organized through the Cove and Camp Agency at Two Harbors (see "Hunting" in "Outdoor Recreation").
RED FOX: The small red fox, native to the Island, is seldom seen by the casual observer. However, it has been said that on a summer evening if you study the shoreline where the flying-fish boat flashes its lights toward shore, you'll see fish that mistakenly follow the light beam to land on the rocky beach, stranded. They don't remain long. Another small creature is also watching and waiting for just this opportunity for a fresh seafood meal.
SEA LIONS: Herds of this "circus seal," so intelligent and easily trained, range the California waters and are protected by law from hunters; some specimens five for as long as 35 years. Ranging in color from tan or gray to almost black, the California sea lion cow may be more than 6 feet long and weigh over 300 lbs., while the bulls can grow to 9 feet and 1000 pounds. A large male usually has a prominent crest on its forehead. These enormous bulls battle for favorite locations for their breeding harems, even while the cows are still birthing. Pups are usually born in June, though some are born as early as May and as late as July. The pups then have the summer - a gentle season of mild weather-and an abundant supply of fish to encourage their rapid growth. The sea lions return to the place of their birth to mate each year in late spring or early summer. At one time hundreds flocked back to Catalina; they still do, but not in the same numbers. On San Miguel, another Channel Island, thousands return each year, and its shores are jammed with bellowing caterwauling hordes. Naturalists are studying the Catalina area for reasons why the seal population has decreased so radically. If you have any interest in the habits of these intelligent, inquisitive pinipeds ("fin-footed" ones), the ideal way to observe their habits is from a boat. Watching them lolling on the rocks in the summer sun or gently nudging their pups into the water for a swimming lesson is well worth the time.
There are dozens of coves that have moorings in place for your convenience. We recommend you use these moorings whenever possible. In the summer, moorings can be difficult to obtain, especially for those people who arrive on Saturday. For contact information to reserve a mooring, please click here.
In July, August and September, moorings at Avalon and surrounding coves can fill up as early as Thursday for the weekends. If you are planning a vacation, it is a good idea to go to Avalon early in the week. Absolutely no anchoring is allowed in any of these coves, as the water is too deep and there is too much exposure to wind and sea.
There is shoreboat service from Memorial Weekend to Labor Day weekend, which will allow you to visit Avalon from all the overnight anchorages around Long Point, if you are secured on a mooring. If at anchor, you do need to keep anchor watch at all times.
Moorings are available in abundance here. In the summer, the shoreboat operates all the way to Emerald Cove. Anchoring is allowed in designated overnight anchorages (the same anchorages that have moorings). Use extreme caution and always have your charts with you upon entering the Isthmus, Emerald Cove and surrounding coves. There are reefs under the surface and rocks near the points. The most hazardous reef is on the east side of the Isthmus, well marked with a Red buoy. Emerald Cove has a very long reef that extends west from Indian Rock. There are no anchorages west of Emerald Cove.
Catalina harbor, on the backside of Catalina, is an excellent harbor with rnoorings and good anchorage area. It is the recommended anchorage in Santa Ana wind conditions (winds from East North East) and is also a good anchorage on busy summer weekends. It is the only bay on the backside that we allow Marina Sailing boats to enter. We do not allow any anchoring in Little Harbor, due to the reef that extends from the west side across the entrance.