Santa Catalina Island-Snorkeling for Dear Life

Despite being banned decades ago, toxic chemicals that were dumped in the chanel  continue  to  contaminate  the  natural  habitat  of  birds,  fish,  and  mammals,  and  disrupt their ability to breed. Sewage pollution and climate change–related weather events have increased ocean temperatures and now threaten native food supplies.

When   chewing-gum   magnate   William Wrigley, Jr., fell in love with Catalina Island in  1915,  he  did  what  any  selfrespecting tycoon  would  do:  He  built  an  Art  Deco resort  town  and  invited  A-list  friends  like Laurel  and  Hardy,  Cecil  B.  DeMille,  John Wayne,  and  even  Winston  Churchill  to enjoy it with him. But, luckily, Wrigley was also  a  nature  lover.  Determined  to  preserve his own private Eden, he kept 88% of the island off limits to development.

Wrigley’s   forethought   ensured   that this  little  island,  only  22  miles  (35km)  off the  Southern  California  coast,  would  feel like  another  world  from  the  Los  Angeles metro  sprawl.  The  elegant  Art  Deco  and Spanish-Mediterranean   architecture   of car-free Avalon, with its relaxed resort vibe, is nicely complemented by the well-preserved native Californian landscape of its rugged, hilly  interior.  In  1975  Wrigley’s  estate deeded  most  of  the  interior  outright  to  the Catalina  Island  Conservancy , which has vigorously protected his legacy. But  these  days  the  conservancy  has  its hands full.

Sewage pollution, sea otter hunting, sea urchin grazing, and elevated temperatures caused  by  El  Niño  events  have  reduced the lush stands of giant kelp that make this one  of  the  West  Coast’s  best  snorkeling sites. (Luckily, marine reserves had already been  set  up  at  Lover’s  Cove,  Casino Point,  Toyon  Bay,  and  Blue  Cavern Point, where the snorkeling is still superb.) There  are  too  many  mule  deer—a  non-native species introduced years ago as wild game—and not enough of the native foxes. Wildfire—an  inescapable  part  of  nature’s cycle  in  Southern  California—devastated 4,750 acres (1,922 hectares) of the island in  May  2007.  But  the  worst  problem  is much  more  intractable:  25  years  of  DDT and PCBs being dumped across the chan-nel  that  separates  it  from  Los  Angeles. Though  the  dumping  was  stopped  in  the early 1970s, tons of DDT and PCBs still lie on the ocean floor off the Palos Verde peninsula.  Artificial  reefs  have  been  created around  the  island  to  protect  its  fish, and conservancy  naturalists  zealously  protect the nesting sites of native eagles. Whether they can turn the tide is still uncertain.

To  get  to  Catalina,  depart  from  either San Pedro or Long Beach on the Catalina Express   ferryboat     or    Island Express  helicopters . Arriving  in  resortlike  Avalon,  the  island’s port  and  only  town,  be  sure  to  visit  the Wrigley  Botanical  Garden  in  Avalon ,  which  is  like  a  mini-course in the botany of California’s coastal islands. To explore the interior, you’ll need to  hike  or  mountain  bike  (Catalina  stringently  limits  the  number  of  cars  on  its roads), or take a 4-hour tour with Discov-ery Tours, which also runs underwater tours of the  kelp  forest  and  nighttime  trips  to observe  flying  fish.  Don’t  be  surprised  if you  see  buffalo  roaming  the  range,  the offspring   of   a   few   movie-prop   bison imported  in  1929—just  another  of  the quirks that makes Catalina so special.