San Nicholas Island
San Nicolas Island is the most remote of California’s Channel Islands lying 78 nautical miles (nm) south by southeast from Santa Barbara and 53 miles from the nearest coastline. Rising out of the rolling Pacific swells, the 14,500 acre (23 square miles) island is defined by wave cut terraces and windswept, grassy hills. It is currently controlled and operated as a weapons testing and training facility by the United States Navy. The island has a small airport and the several buildings supporting the naval operation are affectionately referred to as ‘Nictown.’ Landing on the island is strictly prohibited and one of the offshore water areas is restricted from transiting or anchoring.
Channel Islands Expeditions travels out to San Nicolas Island during the summer and early fall to dive the iconic Begg Rock and some of the island’s nearshore reefs. Begg Rock is a small rock lying almost 8 miles to the west from the island and it is one of California’s most pristine dive locations. This is open ocean diving so wind, swell, and currents can make this a difficult area to scuba dive. When the conditions are right, this dive will not be forgotten. Shear walls covered in corynactis anemones paint this dive in a rainbow of colors. In the fall, the island itself is a popular lobster diving area when they are in season. Its remote location means that a trip to San Nicolas implies a chance of encountering unstable weather. A day of unfavorable conditions can result in tough diving in this open ocean environment. However, or those up for the adventure, a good day of weather will result in one of the most unique and unforgettable dive experiences you can have at the Channel Islands.
No kayaking is available due to a mandatory 300-yard distance from shore regulation.
No island hiking available as landing is prohibited.
San Nicolas Island shows signs of habitation that date back over 10,000 years. The native peoples that most recently occupied the island are referred to as “Nicholeños,” who had their own distinctive language and culture, though they were probably related to the Tongva people who lived on Santa Catalina Island. The name the Tongva have for San Nicholas is ‘Haraashngna.’ We do not know much of the language or history of the Nicholeños, as the large majority of their population was evacuated and assimilated into the California mission system. Their language became extinct soon after.
The person who would become the most famous resident of San Nicholas Island was left behind by the Franciscan padres who took the rest of the Nicholeños to the California missions. Juana Maria, as she would be known (though her real name was never found out), was the last surviving member of the Nicholeños. She lived alone on the island for 18 years, subsisting on shellfish and seal fat from the Northern elephant seals. Captain George Nidever found Juana Maria on the island in 1853, living in a crude whalebone hut. She was brought back to Santa Barbara, and was the object of much curiosity, becoming well-known for the beautiful songs she would sing. This would be short-lived though, as she died only seven weeks after her arrival to the mainland. Her story was the basis for Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Medal-winning 1961 novel Island of the Blue Dolphins. Academic curiosity about the “Lone Woman of San Nicholas Island” still persists, and after a 20-year search, archaeologists may have uncovered the cave she lived in in 2012.
The ecological diversity of San Nicholas was heavily impacted by sheep ranching for a period of over 80 years. The sheep removed much of the native ground cover until their removal in 1943. This in turn increased the rates of erosion and promoted non-native plant species to spread. Despite the degradation, three endemic plants are found on the island: Astragalus traskiae, Eriogonum grande tamorum, and Lomatium insulare.
The isolated beaches of San Nicholas are anything but lonely during the breeding season of one of the world’s largest seals. The Northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) hauls out here to breed each season, with an estimated 23,000 individuals occupying the beachfront to mate and give birth to pups. A bull elephant seal can weigh in at over 8,000 pounds and measure at up to 16 feet from nose to tail. The female is distinctively smaller, “only” weighing in at 2,000 pounds and measuring 12 feet in length. The island is home to about 30 percent of the wide-ranging California population
The dominant plant community on the island is coastal bluff scrubland, with giant coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea) and coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) the most visible components. The few trees present today, including California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) were introduced in modern times. However, early written accounts and the remains of ancient plants in the form of calcareous root casts, known as ‘caliche,’ indicate that, prior to 1860, brush covered a portion of the island.
There are only three species of endemic land vertebrates on the island; the Island night lizard (Xantusia riversiana), deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus exterus), and island fox (Urocyon littoralis dickey). Two other reptiles, the common side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana), and the southern alligator lizard (Elgaria multicarinatus) were at one time thought to be endemic, but an analysis of mitochondrial DNA indicates that both species were most likely introduced in recent times.
San Nicolas Island is home to large populations of nesting birds. The two largest nesting populations are the Western gull (Larus occidentalis) and Brandt’s cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus). These birds, along with the Island night lizard were threatened by a large population of feral cats, but after extensive eradication efforts by the US Navy and other organizations, the island was declared free of cats in 2012. The birds and once endangered Island night lizard populations immediately rebounded, and the night lizard was consequently taken off the endangered species list in 2014.