San Miguel Island is the westernmost island of California's Channel Islands. In this location, San Miguel is more exposed to wind, waves and currents than any of the other Channel Islands. Incessant northwesterly winds batter the island, but also bring cold, nutrient rich water to its shores, creating a marine ecosystem largely different than that found on the other members of the chain.
Evidence indicates San Miguel was first inhabited at least 12,000 years ago. The Chumash built plank canoes, called tomols, and paddled through the rough seas and rugged winds to reach the island they called Tuquan.
It wasn't until 1542 that Europeans first visited the island, and from then into the 19th century, the island was populated by a variety of squatters, fishermen, and sea otter hunters. Major changes to the island's ecosystem began in 1850 when sheep were introduced. Over the next 25 years the sheep grazed the natural vegetation, until in 1875 the island was described as "a barren lump of sand" by scientists. Over-grazing was stripping away the vegetation and allowing sand to drift across the island, burying that which hadn't been eaten. In 1908 the U.S. Government exercised its right of ownership, but leased the island for grazing to various lessees over the years. The final lease was revoked by the Navy in 1948, but the livestock was left behind and continued grazing until the 1960s when the Navy ordered them removed. The last 148 sheep were hunted and eliminated in 1966. While the sheep were gone, vast tracts of sand dunes dominated the island with natural vegetation found only on steep hillsides and in narrow canyons that sheep couldn’t reach, and where sand couldn’t pile up. The Navy continued to use the island for training and as a bombing range into the 1970s. In 1980, San Miguel Island became part of the Channel Islands National Park, and recovery was able to begin.
Today San Miguel is recovering its former vegetation, although large areas are still covered by sand dunes. With time, and care from the National Park Service, the island may recover to a state somewhat like that found by the first Europeans in 1542.
This photo was taken with a Canon EF17-40mm f/4.0 lens on a Canon EOS 10D. The exposure was set to 1/125 sec at f/8.0 and ISO 100.