August 9, 2012
By Arya Harsono
Most people associate California with sun, sand, and beautiful girls. But for ecologists and scientists, California is home to a biological hotspot. Not every state in America has their own set of islands that is teeming with aquatic and terrestrial wildlife alike. There are eight California Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, and Santa Catalina Island is one of them. Located roughly 22 miles southwest of Los Angeles, Santa Catalina Island is fairly uninhabited by humans save for its small city, Avalon, and village, Two Harbors. It has become a tourist destination for those who wish to experience California to the fullest potential while also being able to witness some of the world’s greatest natural environments.
The first settlers of the island were Native Americans, which is relevant to one of Catalina’s most famous legends. In 1824, the brig known as Danube left from New York only to be wrecked upon the rocks near San Pedro. Among the survivors of the Danube was Samuel Prentiss, who with the other survivors found refuge in the San Gabriel Mission. Here Prentiss encountered an old Gabrielino Indian Chieftain by the name of Turie who told Prentiss stories of buried treasure on the island. He was given a map, which was later lost at sea. To this day, the existence of the treasure remains a mystery. Though irrelevant to environmental issues, it is important to know the history in order to gauge an understanding of maybe how the environment has become the way it is today.
In the olden days, it was treasure that may have attracted many visitors from around the nation, increasing human interaction with the wildlife. But in recent times, the environment has become more of a big deal. Due to the many fascinating species that call Catalina Island their home, environmentalists have gathered interest in the island’s biodiversity. Some species are native to the island, while other species have been introduced by commercial shipping and human interactions. The more common native species of flora on the East end of Catalina include prickly pears, Catalina cherry trees, sumac (or lemonade berry), and wild sage. Though there are plenty of invasive flora species on the island, one particular species has been causing several environmental concerns among the community. The fast-growing fennel, more native to Mediterranean shores, has somehow made its way to Catalina Island, spreading out over the entire island and dominating the soil. This has lead to a decreased amount of other flora species.
Among the terrestrial native fauna are rattlesnakes, the Island fox, California ground squirrel, Santa Catalina Island Deer Mouse and the ornate shrew. Before, sea otters used to roam the waters surrounding Catalina Island, but have gone extinct due to hunting for their fur. The Island fox has also become endangered due to human interactions. Many organizations, such as the Catalina Island Conservancy, have been ensuring that the island’s biodiversity is maintained by protecting certain areas and species. They have also been trying to restore bald eagles. But perhaps the most interesting fauna species on Catalina Island are the obviously non-native buffalos that roam the rocky landscapes of the island. Originally, there were fourteen buffalo introduced in 1924 by film director William Farnum during a film shoot of Zane Grey’s The Vanishing American. The buffalo were left to roam on the island, and by 1934, their population had increased to 19 with 30 additional being brought in from Colorado to maintain the population (Mallan, 8). This soon became another tourist attraction for Santa Catalina Island. Nowadays, they are left unharmed, except for the females that need to be sterilized in order to control their population.
The above overview of Santa Catalina Island is what I have learned in the brief time that I have spent on the island. In the past three days, I have hiked student-made trails, made with careful precision as not to create erosion. I had the opportunity to hack at invasive fennel like a man fending off the horde of extraterrestrials in an old sci-fi B-movie. Working in a laboratory, I also had the chance to sample different soils in which I measured their pH and examined them for soil texture. To perhaps the average student, this seems to be generic academic environmental science work. But to me, it says a lot about what we can do and what we have done as a community of humans dedicated to preserving the beauty that we mutually depend on. In only three days, I have encountered several new concepts and species that I would never have been able to experience without the opportunity. But sometimes, all it takes is a long gaze at a mesmerizing sea of winking lights to maybe even consider that there is much more to the natural world around us than we think.
Mallan, Chicki. Guide to Catalina and California’s Channel Islands. Chico, Calif., USA: Moon Publications, 1990. Print.
About the Author: Arya Harsono is an undergraduate of the B.S. Environmental Studies program in USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, & Sciences. He is currently residing on Santa Catalina Island, spending many nights cozying up in the grass out on the ridge, underneath a glistening night sky. Readers are welcome to join him and discuss philosophical concepts (just like in the movies).