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.