Catalina part 1: Two Harbors

Having left Santa Cruz Island, we made a pit stop in Redondo Beach to resupply, as we knew that groceries would be expensive at our next destination; Catalina Island. There we met the friendliest and most helpful harbor masters we have ever encountered, who chatted with us and offered travel tips every time we saw them, let us use their dinghy dock when they realized we had a baby with us, and offered to help carry our groceries when they saw how heavy our bags were. We also met a couple from Germany who were anchored next to us, fresh from a trying leg south from freezing, stormy Alaska, and who have been sailing for the past 10 years. They had us over for tea and proved to be a fount for cruising knowledge and travel tales. “ I had enough of working 80 hour workweeks to pay the bills”, explained our new friend Thomas. “ It’s good that you are cruising with your son now, they need their parents’ time most of all.”

Map of Catalina

Catalina Island is 25 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, a popular vacation spot for the mainlanders for its clear water teaming with sea life and extensive hiking trail system. Two Harbors is located on the western end of the island, and is easily identifiable as the spot where two bays; Catalina Harbor (south) and Isthmus Bay (north), pinch together, nearly severing the island save for a half-mile piece of land. We were forewarned of how crowded the island gets, especially with the Independence Day festivities coming up, so we chose to tuck up in the southern of the two harbors; more inaccessible to boats coming from the mainland, but still close to activities and amenities in the northern bay.

Monsoon in 8 feet of water in Catalina Harbor. We sat on the bottom at low tide every night
Expensive restaurants nevertheless make the area look classy

Catalina Island is known as one of the best places in the world for diving, in part because of the abundance of shipwrecks around its coasts. Here in Catalina Harbor alone, there are 6 wrecks to be found, all of them victims of movie magic of the 1920s. During this period, old wooden ships were loosing out to the new technologies of their more modern counterparts. Otherwise sturdily built ships with illustrious pasts could be bought cheaply by movie companies from Los Angeles to be used as props for their productions. Several of them were brought out to exotic looking Catalina Island to be blown up and sunk for the silver screen, including the Chinese junk Ning Po, infamously used as a smuggling vessel. Here is a link to a list of sunken ships found around Catalina.

USC touch tanks
Sea stars
USC has a good location with clear water right at their doorstep
Orange garibaldi and a school of minnow that I got to snorkel in
A fearless garibaldi

Over at the University of Southern California, a 2 mile hike away from our anchorage, a series of presentations were held every Saturday featuring work done by doctorate students on sustainability. On the weekend that we were there, we were treated to a student’s thesis on countering ocean acidification using beach sand, followed by a show and tell at the university’s touch tank, and a tour of the hyperbaric chamber that they have on campus used in diving accident rescues. In the chamber, high pressures experienced during dives are simulated to gradually acclimatize victims suffering from the bends back to pressures experienced on land. At the touch tank, we were shown several species of local sea animals, and shown how all the water used on campus to house sea life is taken from the ocean, and then retuned unaltered. “The only way we are allowed to alter the seawater is by placing frozen water bottles in the tanks on extremely hot days to cool the animals down. You can watch them moving towards the bottles as if they were air conditioners”, explained the facilitator. “We have nets over our intake pipes to help keep animals out, but sometimes spawn makes its way into our tanks anyway. For instance, all the abalone you see here came in thru our pipes”, she further demonstrated, pointing at several large and content looking specimens. Before leaving the campus, we took the opportunity to do some snorkeling at the university’s shoreline. We had heard about the possibility of there being leopard sharks in the area, a species that is harmless, small and inquisitive. We did not encounter any sharks, but we did see plenty of garibaldi, the state marine fish of California. Bright orange and unafraid of humans, they make easy spotting for short sighted, beginner snorkelers such as myself.

Rowan is not very enthusiastic about this whole ‘kids’ craft’ idea
A crowded beach on Independence Day
Boats dressed up for the festivities
Enjoying fireworks from Monsoon’s cockpit

Looking back on our previous Fourth of Julys spent together, some of the more memorable, if not questionable ones, include climbing to the roof of Travis’ workplace to watch fireworks, and sailing our visiting family members thru small craft advisory weather to watch what turned out to be partially covered fireworks in foggy weather. This year, we got to witness the massive influx of sailing vessels to Catalina Island, where fireworks are done on the 4th in Avalon, and on the 6th in Two Harbors, for the reason that there is only one Fire Department here, and they cannot risk fires breaking out at both ends of the island at the same time. In the morning, we tried bringing Rowan to a kids’ craft party in the plaza, and quickly realized that there is very little craft that a baby can do. At least we got to eat some cookies that we ‘helped’ him decorate. Next, we waited in 107 degree Fahrenheit (42 degree Celcius) weather for a dinghy parade that we, and most other people, missed seeing as they sailed away behind the rows and rows of mooring buoys without any fanfare. Our rather disappointing day was made better at sundown however, when we got to watch the promised fireworks from the cockpit of our boat, Japanese peach sake in hand, and with a baby happily sleeping below deck. Boats all around us sounded their horns as the show began, and firework plumes were perfectly framed by the hills of Two Harbors.

A half mile piece of land is all that keeps Catalina from being 2 islands
Panorama from atop Mount Torquemada (1336 feet)
It was worth it hiking up a mountain just to have a scenic lunch spot
Fences separate the island into sections to aid the removal of invasive animal species
A buffalo loading platform used to ship excess animals to South Dakota
A buffalo ramp
Travis’ guess is that these are buffalo bones
An abandoned car on a trail

One of the objectives we had coming to Catalina, with the John Muir Trail thru hike looming in our near future, was to train up on hiking with fully packed backpacks, on similar gradients and mileages, as well as to test out some calorie counted and weighed trail recipes. Here in Two Harbors, we hiked up both sides of the pinch, earning breathtaking panoramic views of the hills and harbors below. We had originally planned to hike the Trans Catalina Trail, but were discouraged when we learned how expensive camping permits and transport back to the trailhead were. So, true to our penny-pinching cruiser selves, we concocted plans that would allow us to hike along some of the official trail, but would nevertheless place us back on the boat at the end of the day. One of the peculiarities of the island is its population of buffalo, introduced in the 1920s by a movie company for one of its productions. Shots of the buffalo were never used, but the buffalo were let loose on the island anyway and eventually bred to 600 individuals, living among the cacti and steep hills. In the 2000s the Catalina Island Conservancy stepped in and relocated the majority of the buffalo to South Dakota and put the rest of the population on birth control to help bring their numbers down to something more manageable. Buffalo are still an unnatural part of the island, but a compromise was made for the sake of the tourism industry on which many locals depend.

Sea asparagus. Tastes like a salty version of Java apples (jambu air)
An opal eye munching on algae growing on the bottom of our boat

On a slow day, I sat on the plaza lawn reading a fishing manual for cruisers, feeling inspired to forage and fish after finding some sea asparagus growing on shore. I let myself daydream about fresh caught sashimi, Cajun crawfish boils, and generous servings of bouillabaisse. That evening when we returned home however, we found a little fish snacking on the algae growing on the bottom of our boat. I watched it swimming back and forth, chewing away on our greens for all the world like it was corn on a cob, and couldn’t imagine myself killing one of those for dinner. It had too much of a personality. Maybe I’ll limit myself to clams. And seaweed.


One thought on “Catalina part 1: Two Harbors

  1. This place sounds incredible. You both do such great work trying to capture your experiences, both through storytelling and photos. Well done and very enjoyable. Thanks for sharing.


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