Santa Catalina Island
After Alcatraz, Santa Catalina Island is probably the best known of any of California’s islands. This island’s proximity to Los Angeles transformed it into a popular tourist destination, evidenced by its one million visitors each year. The island is 22 miles long and eight miles across at its greatest width. The highest point on the island is Mt. Orizaba 2,126 feet. The island was widely developed as a resort by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. Now, ninety percent of the island is owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy, with the remainder of the island under the ownership of private entities.
The island is a rugged terrain of ridges and canyons with a few valleys inland and on its coastal fringes. The island is a semi-arid with only 12 inches of rainfall each year, though the marine climate does moderate temperatures during the summer and winter. The majority of the terrain here is characterized by chapparal vegetation with pine forest interspersed in canyons and at higher elevations.
Catalina Island is well known for its calm, clear, and warm waters. Even though Catalina is the most populated dive site of any other Channel Island, it is still sought out by scuba divers around the globe. Any trip with Channel Islands Expeditions is sure to encounter verdant kelp forest full of garibaldi, yellowtail, kelp bass, white seabass, giant black sea bass, and leopard sharks, as well as many other intriguing species. Photography and sightseeing are especially good in these clear waters, though free divers enjoy the possibility of spearing yellowtail and white seabass. Channel Islands Expeditions makes this destination part of its itinerary on the southern islands multi-day dive excursions, mostly during the summer months.
Scenic coastlines and warm waters make for the perfect opportunity to paddle, swim, and snorkel away an afternoon in beautiful surroundings. Your expedition leader will choose amongst the variety of sheltered coastal paddling opportunities that may present themselves on an adventure to Catalina Island with Channel Islands Expeditions.
There are many hiking trails along Catalina Island. Beach walking is allowed for anyone, but a permit is required for any back country travel. Permits can be acquired through the Catalina Island Conservancy. A point of pride for the island is the Trans-Catalina Trail, a recently finished 37.2-mile track that spans from Avalon on the east end of the island, past the isthmus, and ending at Starlight Beach on the west end.
Archaeological evidence shows Catalina was occupied by ancient cultures at least as far back as 6,800 years ago. The most recent native peoples to occupy the island were of the Tongva culture, whose languages and traditions were distinct from the Chumash of the northern Channel Islands. The Tongva referred to the island as “pimu” and to those that lived there as “pimuvit.” Large settlements dotted the coastline of pimu, and the pimuvit were renowned for the quarrying and trading of soapstone, which they excelled in carving.
The island would be discovered on Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s foundational voyage of exploration in 1542. The colonization of California by the Spanish brought about the swift disintegration of the Tongva people, including those that resided on Santa Catalina Island. Over the years, the island would change hands and small ranchos were established, but it was not until the turn of the 20th century that anyone would have designs on turning Catalina Island into a tourist destination. A real estate developer from Michigan named George Shatto created the settlement that would become Avalon and built its first hotel and pier.
William Wrigley Jr. acquired the majority of the Catalina Island Company in 1919, when he bought the island as an investment, but was so enamored by it he decided to keep it and develop the island so as to make it accessible to anyone that might like to visit. Wrigley subsequently, invested millions of dollars in the island, building and modernizing utilities and buildings in and around the now famous city of Avalon. He made it the spring training location for the Chicago Cubs built the iconic Catalina Casino building in 1929. The Wrigleys later donated 42,000 acres of land to the Catalina Island Conservancy for preservation.
Santa Catalina Island’s diversity in flora and fauna is second to only Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands chain. Its proximity to the outflows of the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana river basins opens the island up to a higher probability of species “rafting” over to the beaches of Catalina. This naturally leads to isolation and speciation, and as a result, Catalina is home to five native land mammals: the Santa Catalina Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis catalinae) being the most well-known among them. It is home to a diverse array of endemic birds, reptiles, insects, and plants. Interestingly, it is the only Channel Island to have a native rattlesnake population.
DDT, a pesticide that was outlawed in 1972 wreaked havoc on California’s marine ecosystem and was especially consequential for the island’s native population of Bald eagles. DDT was absorbed by the birds’ major prey, fish, and then ingested by the eagles. It caused the eagles to lay eggs with weakened shells that cracked under the adults’ weight during incubation. DDT poisoning eventually extirpated the Bald eagle from California’s Channel Islands. The Catalina Island Conservancy and the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS) have been working in a long-standing relationship to restore Bald eagles to the island for decades. To assist the eagles, IWS biologists began retrieving the fragile eggs, hatching them off-site in incubators and returning healthy chicks to the nests, where the parents accepted them back and raised them. In 2007, DDT levels had finally decreased enough to allow bald eagles to successfully hatch eggs in the wild, when five eagle chicks hatched naturally – the first time an eagle had successfully hatched in over 50 years! By 2009, all nests on Catalina were left to natural hatching and incubation, and in 2014 and 2020 four more Bald eagle chicks hatched and fledged in nests around the island.
A herd of American Bison were supposedly first imported in 1924 for the silent film version of Catalina Island resident Zane Grey’s western novella, “The Vanishing American,” still roam the island. Over the decades, the bison herd grew to as many as 600 individuals, though the Catalina Island Conservancy concluded that a population of 150-200 individuals would reduce the impact of these non-native animals on the native flora and fauna to a sufficient degree. The herd was managed to the point where only 100 animals remained in 2020. To bolster the herd’s genetics, the Catalina Island Conservancy introduced two pregnant females in 2020.