October 7 – Anniversary of the “Discovery” of Catalina Island

Posted on October 7, 2014

Let's get this very clear: Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo wasn't the first human to discover Catalina Island – which is the largest of the Channel Islands off the coast of Los Angeles.

On this date in 1542, when Cabrillo and the sailors he led reached the island we now call Santa Catalina Island, there were people living on it who called the island Limu or Pimu. The crew of Cabrillo's fleet called it “La Isla Capitana” (The Captain Island) or “Isla de Juan Rodriguez.” And Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo himself called it “San Salvador” (Saint Savior).

Unfortunately, it's not clear what happened during the historical landing, because the official log book was lost. Apparently there are some 70,000 pages of ships' logs, legal documents, and statements by Spaniards in the New World that we get most of our information about this voyage and other long-ago events...

And from wading through all that morass of pages, historians determined the likely truth: Cabrillo and his men were greeted by a “great crowd of armed Indians,” but they later were able to “befriend” the islanders. However, when Cabrillo and his fleet later came back to Catalina to overwinter and repair their ship, a shore party got in trouble with the Tongva islanders. Cabrillo himself led a rescue party to shore, but while dealing with the surging surf and the rocky shore, Cabrillo broke his leg. Everyone made it back to the ship in one piece, apparently... but Cabrillo's wound would later kill him.

On January 3, 1593, Cabrillo died of infection and gangrene. He was buried on an island....but we aren't positive which one. Many historians think that Cabrillo was likely buried on Catalina Island, but there are some other theories as well.

Any questions?

  • Where exactly on Catalina Island is Cabrillo buried? Can we see a memorial or tombstone?
We don't actually know whether or not Cabrillo was buried on Catalina Island. There is no tombstone on that island, although there is a monument for him on San Miguel Island, also rumored to be his burial site.

  • The island isn't called Limu, Pimo, La Isla Capitana, Isla de Juan Rodriguez, OR San Salvador now. So who named it Catalina?
Another Spanish explorer landed on the island in 1602. It was he who named it Santa Catalina, for Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

  • What is Catalina Island like?
Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley bought controlling interest in Catalina Island and built a casino; he promoted the island by holding events there and using the island for spring training for his baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. Now many tourists go there—after all, the island is very close to the 16 million + people in the greater Los Angeles area.

The island is famous among locals for having some non-native animals such as American bison, mule deer, and feral cats (wild cats whose ancestors were pet cats). One of the coolest native animals is the island fox.

  • What is the best thing about Catalina?
The answers to this question have to vary widely – as many answers as answerers, perhaps – but the thing I like best is the Catalina Island Marine Institute, an outdoor education camp for kids. All my kids have attended the institute multiple times (I got to go, too, once!), and they loved snorkeling and kayaking, hiking and going in "the maze," doing dissections and other hands-on labs, trawling for plankton and doing a glass-bottom-boat ride!

When I think of snorkeling at Catalina Island,
I think of the bright orange garibaldi fish.

And the instructors from the Marine Institute (pictured here, below) helped discover this giant oarfish!

Also on this date:

Physicist Niels Bohr's birthday 

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