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San Clemente Journal

The Secret Life of San Clemente Island

Aug 01, 2002 08:31AM ● By Don Kindred
- Rosemary Sieve

Stroll along one of the many beautiful southern California beaches, San Clemente in particular, and you may see her hiding in the coastal mists out in the Pacific Ocean. She is tiny San Clemente Island sitting on the horizon 75 miles northwest of San Diego. On a clear day, shimmering in the distance, she beckons and calls to all that see her.

This twenty-one mile-long islet is one of eight Channel Islands and lies directly southwest of Catalina Island. The United States Navy has owned its fifty-six square miles since 1934 and, due to its close proximity to the San Diego homeport, it has often been used as an auxiliary landing field. Its physical characteristics and the surrounding waters have also proven ideal for tactical training.

Boom Boom

On the southern part of the isle is the shore bombardment area where intense training in littoral warfare, electronic warfare and missile firing occurs. On a foggy day you can sometimes hear the eerie thud of falling ammunition as the military conducts readiness exercises. This miniature landmass is the cornerstone of tactical training ranges and supports a large concentration of naval forces, including the legendary S.E.A.L.S. It allows U.S. military to train in a safe and controlled environment readying armed forces to meet global and national security needs.

Environmentally Sound
Great pains, however, have been taken to protect animal life on this special island, as the Navy supports all zoological studies and environmental safeguards. For instance, to prevent harmful diesel fuel emissions that may damage wild life, the naval facility has installed three 225-kilowatt wind turbines that reduce carbon monoxide fumes, while providing at least 15% of the island’s electricity.

The endangered San Clemente Island Loggerhead Shrike, one of the rarest birds in North America, calls this islet its home. The Shrike is incubated and reared there, and then released back into the wild. Approximately 50 of these endangered species live in the scrub brush on the isle while many others are kept in a captive breeding facility. Incidentally, during the breeding period, the bombardment range is closed four days per week to allow biologists to study the Shrike. The cost of this program is $2.5 million annually.

Other endangered species living there include the rare Island Fox, the Island Night Lizard and the Western Snowy Plover, a bird who makes its nests on the sandy beaches. All are protected species.

Goats Arrive
In the late 1500s, Spanish ships left goats on San Clemente Island to be used as a ready meat source for their crews. However, as the Spanish Goat’s numbers increased, their ferocious appetites began annihilating endangered plants, so the Navy finally allowed the animals to be hunted. Public outrage forced the Navy to cease the hunting for a short time to allow removal of the beast by ‘The Fund for Animals’, an animal welfare group. Every effort is now being made on the mainland to keep this unusual fine-boned goat from becoming extinct.

Human Habitation Discovered
Archaeological research has found indications that a maritime-oriented peoples, who were also hunter-gatherers, once lived on San Clemente Island. Consequently, over 7600 archaeological sites now exist there for research. Ancient fish hooks, beads and cooking bowls, dating back 900 years, are among the artifacts discovered there, and evidence of occupation on the island shows that people lived there until the early 1800s.

To exist, they had practically everything needed, as there is a wealth of marine life in the rich kelp beds, particularly on the southeastern side where five mile long Pyramid Cove lies. Small lobsters linger in the nooks and crannies of the reef along with Bat Rays and schools of Blacksmith and Sheephead fish. Skimming along the bottom of the ocean one may see the sleek but illusive Angel Shark; and playing in the kelp beds with colorful Giant Kelpfish, California Seal Lions can be found searching for their dinners.

In the murky depths of the ocean the rocks have created canyons, ridges and passageways that are well worth exploring, if you’re really lucky, you may even spot the seven foot long Giant Seabass weighing in at more than 500 pounds. This beautiful creature, nearly fished to extinction in the 1960s, is also a protected breed.

One wonders if a Spanish galleon could have floundered on the reefs while leaving goats on this particular islet, however, there is no evidence of this ever happening. The only ghostly wreck being pounded in the shallow waters is that of the U.S.S. Koka, a 157-foot long steel hulled vessel built in 1919 and ending her career on the rocks in 1937. Unfortunately no gold bullion was ever found on her remains, just brass artifacts of another era. The golden reward on this wreck is its use as a haven for sea life.

In the future, when you see this fog enshrouded land peering out at you in the distance, know that the beautiful San Clemente Island is an environmentally distinct coastal island. Know also that it is a place where young men and women are trained for warfare and, if needed, their well-honed abilities will defend you and me whenever they are called upon.