San Nicolas Island

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Map of Channel Islands

San Nicolas Island is the most remote of California's Channel Islands. It is part of Ventura County. The 14,562 acre (58.93 km² or 22.753 sq mi) island is currently controlled by the United States Navy and is used as a weapons testing and training facility, served by Naval Outlying Field San Nicolas Island. The uninhabited island is defined by the United States Census Bureau as Block Group 9, Census Tract 36.04 of Ventura County, California.[1] The Nicoleño Native American tribe inhabited the island until 1835. As of the 2000 U.S. Census, the island has since remained officially uninhabited, though the census estimates that at least 200 military and civilian personnel live on the island at any given time. The island has a small airport and several buildings, including telemetry reception antennas.[2]

San Nicolas Island


San Nicolas was originally the home of the Nicoleño people, who were probably related to the Tongva of the mainland and Santa Catalina Island. It was named for Saint Nicholas by Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno after he sighted the island on the saint's feast day (December 6) in 1602. The Nicoleños were evacuated in the early 19th century by the padres of the California mission system after a series of conflicts with Russian-led Aleutian fur trappers decimated their population.[citation needed] Within a few years of their removal from the island, the Nicoleño people and their unique language became extinct.

Lone Woman (or Lost Woman) of San Nicolas Island[edit]

Main article: Juana Maria

The most famous resident of San Nicolas Island was the "Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island", christened Juana Maria; her birth name was never known to anyone on the mainland. She was left behind (explanations for this vary) when the rest of the Nicoleños (Ghalas-at) were moved to the mainland. She resided on the island alone for 18 years before she was found by Captain George Nidever and his crew in 1853 and brought back to Santa Barbara. She died seven weeks later, her system unprepared for the different nutritional and environmental conditions on the California mainland.[citation needed] Her story was the basis for Scott O'Dell's Newbery Medal-winning 1960 novel Island of the Blue Dolphins, and was also the basis for a chapter in Max Miller's 1932 best-selling book I Cover the Waterfront.[citation needed]


The steam-schooner California and her two whale catchers Hawk and Port Saunders operated off San Nicolas in 1932 and 1937, catching about 30 fin whales off the island from October to early December in the former year.[3][4]

U.S. Navy facilities on San Nicolas Island, 2009.

Munitions testing[edit]

San Nicolas Island was one of eight candidate sites to detonate the first atomic bomb before White Sands Proving Ground was selected for the Trinity (nuclear test).[5] Between 1957 and 1973, and in 2004 and 2010, U.S. military research rockets were launched from San Nicolas Island. The launchpad was situated at 33°15′N 119°30′W / 33.250°N 119.500°W / 33.250; -119.500Coordinates: 33°15′N 119°30′W / 33.250°N 119.500°W / 33.250; -119.500. It remains part of the Pacific Missile Range.

San Nicolas Island currently serves as a detachment of Naval Base Ventura County. In addition to Port Hueneme and Point Mugu, San Nicolas Island is military-owned and operated.



Composed primarily of Eocene sandstone and shale,[6] much of the island also has marine terrace deposits of Pleistocene age, indicating that it was probably completely submerged at that time.[7] The entire western part of the island is covered with reddish-brown eolian dune deposits laid down during the early Holocene. In some places these deposits are more than 10 meters deep.[8] Small quantities of volcanic rocks (primarily andesite) exist on the southeast end of the island.[9]

Stone available to natives for tool making on San Nicolas Island was largely limited to metavolcanic (including porphyritic metavolcanic) and metasedimentary (mainly quartzite) rock.[10] The metavolcanics are found in the form of cobbles within conglomerates and cobble-bearing mudstones.[9] This material is dense and not easily workable.[10]


Under the Köppen climate classification, San Nicolas Island features a semi-arid climate (Köppen BSk) with mediterranean characteristics.[11] Winters are mild with an average temperature of 55.3 °F (12.9 °C) in February, the coolest month and is the season where most of the precipitation falls.[12] Summers are dry and warm with an average of 64.7 °F (18.2 °C) in September, indicating a seasonal lag. Temperatures above 90 °F (32.2 °C) are rare, occurring on 2 days per summer.[12] The average annual precipitation is 8.58 inches (218 mm), with the wettest month being February and the driest month being August. On average, there are 36 days with measurable precipitation.[12]

Climate data for San Nicolas Island
Record high °F (°C)83
Average high °F (°C)61.3
Daily mean °F (°C)55.6
Average low °F (°C)50.1
Record low °F (°C)36
Precipitation inches (mm)1.67
Avg. precipitation days (≥ 0.01 in)67453110123636
Source: WRCC (normals 1933-1976)[12]


There is little ecological diversity on San Nicolas Island. The island was heavily grazed by sheep until they were removed in 1943. Overgrazing and erosion have removed much of the topsoil from the island. Despite the degradation, three endemic plants are found on the island: Astragalus traskiae, Eriogonum grande subspecies tamorum, and Lomatium insulare.

The dominant plant community on the island is coastal bluff scrubland, with giant coreopsis, Coreopsis gigantea and coyote brush, Baccharis pilularis the most visible components. The few trees present today, including California fan palms, Washingtonia filifera, were introduced in modern times. However, early written accounts and the remains of ancient plants in the form of calcareous root casts indicate that, prior to 1860, brush covered a portion of the island.[13]

There are only three species of endemic land vertebrates on the island; the island night lizard, Xantusia riversiana, deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus exterus, and island fox, Urocyon littoralis dickeyi. Two other reptiles, the common side-blotched lizard, Uta stansburiana, and the southern alligator lizard Elgaria multicarinatus, were at one time thought to be endemic, but an analysis of mitochondrial DNA indicates that both species were most likely introduced in recent times.[14]

Large numbers of birds can be found on San Nicolas Island. Two species are of particular ecological concern: the western gull, Larus occidentalis, and Brandt's cormorant, Phalacrocorax penicillatus, both of which are threatened by feral cats and island foxes.

The common housecat was one of the greatest threats to the island's wildlife until they were eradicated from the island.[15] The cats killed cormorants, gulls, and the island night lizard. The Navy removed the cats in order to protect the birds' nesting areas.[16] The cats arrived on the island before 1952, probably brought by navy officers that worked there.[15] Many cats have been relocated to a specially prepared habitat in Ramona, in San Diego County, where they can live indefinitely.[17] It is believed that there were no cats left by June 2010, but they weren't officially declared eradicated until 2012. Eradication efforts took 18 months and cost $3 million.[15]

References in popular culture[edit]

San Nicolas appears as the titular isle in Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins, as well as that novel's sequel, Zia. It is also the setting for the computer video game Rise of the Triad. Used as a map reference in the movie Commando as Arius's island. On page 52 of the book How to Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff, it is used in a temperature comparison (both had annual means of 61 degrees) with the deserts of Southern California as an example of the importance of knowing the range of data used to calculate an average mean.


  1. ^ Block Group 9, Census Tract 36.04, Ventura County United States Census Bureau
  2. ^ "San Nicolas Island - Channel Islands California". Retrieved 2014-08-14. 
  3. ^ Pacific Fisherman (Vol. 31, 1933), p. 42.
  4. ^ Pacific Fisherman (Vol. 35, 1937), p. 48.
  5. ^ "Trinity Atomic Web Site". Walker, Gregory. Retrieved 2010-08-20. 
  6. ^ Meighan, Clement W. and Hal Eberhart. 1953. Archaeological Resources of San Nicolas Island, California. American Antiquity vol. 19 no. 2, pp. 109.
  7. ^ Thorne, Robert F. 1996. The California Islands. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden vol. 56 no. 3, pp. 394.
  8. ^ Vedder, J. G., and Robert M. Norris. 1963. Geology of San Nicolas Island, California Geological Survey Professional Paper 369. United States Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., pp. 31.
  9. ^ a b Vedder, J. G., and Robert M. Norris. 1963. Geology of San Nicolas Island, California Geological Survey Professional Paper 369. United States Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., pp. 27-29.
  10. ^ a b Rosenthal, E. Jane. 1996. "San Nicolas Island Bifaces: A Distinctive Stone Tool Manufacturing Technique." Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology vol. 18 no. 2, pp. 304.
  11. ^ Kottek, M.; J. Grieser; C. Beck; B. Rudolf; F. Rubel (2006). "World Map of the Köppen-Geiger climate classification updated". Meteorol. Z. 15 (3): 259–263. doi:10.1127/0941-2948/2006/0130. Retrieved December 1, 2012. 
  12. ^ a b c d "General Climate Summary Tables". Western Regional Climate Center. Retrieved December 1, 2012. 
  13. ^ Schoenherr, Allan A., C. Robert Feldmeth, and Michael J. Emerson. 2003. Natural History of the Islands of California (paperback), University of California Press, Berkeley. pp. 339-340.
  14. ^ Schoenherr, Allan A., C. Robert Feldmeth, and Michael J. Emerson. 2003. Natural History of the Islands of California (paperback), University of California Press, Berkeley. pp. 342-347.
  15. ^ a b c Steve Chawkins (February 26, 2012). "Complex effort to rid San Nicolas Island of cats declared a success". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 28, 2012. 
  16. ^ Restoration Activities - Montrose Settlements Restoration Program - Pacific Region - DAARP National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
  17. ^ McCormack, P. Island's feral cats get home at rehab center. San Diego Union-Tribune December 24, 2009.

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