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The Call of the Isles : A Leisurely Expedition Through the Channel Islands, Home to Sea Fig, Elephant Seals and Unearthly Vistas

October 13, 1985|PAGE STEGNER

For nearly an hour I've been watching our approach to the northern Channel Islands on the radar scope, a cup of coffee gimbaled in one hand, a brass rail clenched in the other. The Ellen B. Scripps, a 90-foot, steel-hulled research vessel from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, plows through the winter swell, smashing her blunt nose into the wind-driven sea like a pugnacious whale. Heavy spray lashes the bridge, runs aft across the fantail and out through the open transom. In the predawn darkness, safety seems to depend largely on the green sweep of that radar beam with its ghostly reconstruction of coast, offshore drilling rigs, shipping traffic and the treacherous islands that dominate the Santa Barbara Channel. Even when daybreak slowly begins to penetrate the storm cover, the demarcation between ocean and sky is indecipherable.

We are on our way up from San Clemente and San Nicolas, headed for San Miguel, the westernmost island in this chain of submerged mountaintops off the Southern California mainland. Pleistocene topography, the geologists tell us. I read learned papers on the influence of eustatic oscillation of the sea level on submarine terracing, differential uplift of crustal blocks, tectonic deformation, basin deposition, but the information is too solemn and makes no pictures. What one sees from deck level, and at a distance, is low, faintly blue with haze, and often hard to distinguish from a bank of fog. Up close there is greater topographic differentiation--narrow beach or rocky shelf leading to tawny cliffs, sand falling from the wind-swept mesa above, a handful of battered trees emerging from the thin fog like a photographic image in the darkroom tray. Cormorants pose on the jagged dorsal fin of a submerged reef. Sea lions poke curious heads above the rhythmic swells beyond the break.

The purpose of this expedition has been to continue a study of the subtidal habitat around San Nicolas Island, assessing its suitability as a translocation site for sea otters. That work has been completed with ship time to spare, and University of California biologist Burney LeBoeuf wants to look in on the elephant seal colony at Point Bennett, where he conducted extensive research back in 1968. The crew doesn't object to this little cruise. The fishing is fabulous off San Miguel.

In the galley we ignore the Ellen B.'s simulation of a rodeo bronc and wolf down bacon and eggs and flapjacks and the remnants of last night's cherry cheesecake. Sea legs intact. Nobody hanging his head in the scuppers. By the third cup of coffee the steady drone of the engines subsides, and our floating diner begins to roll in a cross swell. The first mate pauses on his way up to the bridge and remarks that we are in the passage between Santa Rosa and San Miguel, slowing because of the changing topographic configuration of the sea floor (we don't want to run aground) and the poor visibility (we don't want to run onto the beach). The weather, he says, seems to be lifting.

Up on deck we have a clear view off the starboard bow of the northeastern flank of San Miguel and Cuyler Harbor, a putative sanctuary protected on the west by Harris Point and on the south by the island itself, but otherwise completely exposed. We have a trailing sea almost directly out of the north, and if we are to have any chance of landing at all we will have to round Cardwell Point and head for Tyler Bight on the southwestern shore. The swells should be blocked by Point Bennett, making a run through the surf in the Zodiac, our inflated rubber boat, less hazardous--though "less hazardous" is a relative term around San Miguel. Breakers converge on the submerged rocks from the north and the south--big rolling combers approaching head-on at about 10 knots, meeting in a geyser of white water that bursts 30 feet in the air and issues a booming report we can hear from almost a mile away. Because of the winds and the conflicting directions of the cold-water California current and a warm-water countercurrent, the area around San Miguel is said to be the roughest on the Pacific coast.

The electronic equipment available to the captain of the Ellen B. as he runs toward Tyler Bight is a far cry from the taffrail log and compass provided the first European to discover the Southern California coast in 1542, Juan Rodrigues Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer. Cabrillo's luck ran out somewhere out there off our starboard beam--his nemesis not a mishap at sea, as befits an explorer in the land of gold and griffins, but gangrene. He fell on San Miguel and broke his arm; two months later he died.

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