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Island Kingdom

Two men trek across the wind-wracked outer reaches of the Channel Islands to observe the once-endangered but now-thriving elephant seal.

February 18, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under the wings of our plane, a Britten Norman Islander, the Oxnard fruit pickers follow neat lines that divide the rich earth into civilized squares. Red bandannas and yellow sleeves move through the green rows. Flower beds and tiny lots with swimming pools and boats tucked in their slips in the marina are the last terrestrial grid before we are swallowed by blue. Then it is nothing but whitecaps and the Peter Pan shadow of the plane for 26 miles till we reach San Miguel, the most remote and therefore wildest and most mysterious of all the Channel Islands.

Not many people come to San Miguel in February. In fact, the 14-square-mile island, which has been a national park since 1980, boasts perhaps the fewest visitors of any National Park in the country--less than 1,000 a year. For one thing, it's a six-hour boat ride (only researchers and park personnel can come in by plane). For another, the wind on the island averages around 25 knots. On this day it's 40 knots, which in less than 24 hours can shape a human being almost as easily as it carves the plants and dunes and rocks of San Miguel. The body tries to go low by hunching or crouching. Forget about hair. You squint. Sometimes the wind rips the oxygen from your mouth before you can suck it into your lungs.

This time of year, besides a few brilliant blooms of coreopsis, the main attraction on San Miguel are the 50,000 elephant seals (more than half of the world's population) that come here to breed on Point Bennett and a few of the other quiet coves. They arrive, in all their glory (males average 15 feet long and weigh about 3 tons, females 11 feet and a little more than 1 ton) sometime around Christmas from the North Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska, and are gone by early March, returning to shed their pelts again in the spring.

The story of the elephant seals is one of the happier chapters in the endangered-species book of the near-dead. Whaling captain Charles Scammon wrote in the early 1870s that elephant seals could be found breeding along the California coast from Point Reyes to Baja. Between the 1820s and the late 1860s, roughly four decades of brutal hunting (elephant seals are slow on land) by American and Mexican sealers, the species was widely thought to be extinct. In 1922, when, some biologists say, the population dropped as low as 20 animals, the Mexican government granted the species formal protected status, followed by the U.S.

We are shown around the island by Ian Williams, who has been the ranger on San Miguel for nine years. He is 40, with red hair and freckles. Though he grew up in Southern California hiking and diving as long, Williams is not your surfer, Navy SEAL, big-drawl, sports type. People who have worked with him for years say he is absolutely calm and very smart. They also say he knows just about everything there is to know about San Miguel. Just walking behind Williams in the 40-knot winds is an education. He keeps his fists balled and his arms swaying slightly from side to side. He walks very fast but stops for long breaks to show a view or a plant or wait for the sun to come from behind a cloud and change the color of the water.

"My goal in life was to get out of L.A.," Williams says of a career path in the Park Service that took him to various historic parks in Texas and to Glacier park in Montana, and finally to San Miguel. When I suggest that he has been here long enough to deserve a formation named after him, Williams turns and says, "On San Miguel, that usually means someone died there."

Islands Forged From Mountains

The Channel Islands are the summits of a submerged ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains. Anacapa (which means, roughly, "mirage" in the language of the Chumash Indians who originally lived on all the islands), Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel were once a single landmass, though even from 1,000 feet up, today, they have strikingly different topographies, colors and personalities. Though most of San Miguel is relatively flat (with the exception of two mountains, the highest 800 feet), for many of the hikes, the visitor must be accompanied by a ranger because of the site's delicate ecology.

Around the island, the water color ranges from a mossy green to cerulean to Tahitian blue around shining white beaches. San Miguel basks in the axis of two currents: a cold one that moves down the coast from Alaska and a warm one coming up from Mexico. Upwelling and shelf areas underwater around the island create a variety of sheltered habitats for kelp and other plants. White waves thrash Prince Island and Castle Rock and other small rock formations off points and in coves. The plane dangles like a Christmas tree ornament, then drops onto a grassy, rutted runway on the southeastern side of the island, in Cuyler Harbor. The flag in front of the ranger station flaps a taut 90 degrees, its frayed edges whipsawed by the wind.

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