Castle Rock, San Miguel Island

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Flea Island aka Castle Rock, San Miguel Island
Flea Island aka Castle Rock, San Miguel Island
Castle Rock, San Miguel Island
Photo by John Wiley
Castle Rock hole, San Miguel Island
Photo by John Wiley
Castle Rock hole, San Miguel Island
Photo by John Wiley
Castle Rock, San Miguel Island is off the northwest shore.
Flea Island, San Miguel Island
Paul Bonnot Report on the Seals and Sea Lions of California, 1928

Castle Rock, San Miguel Island (Flea Island), is a rocky islet one and a half miles north by east off Point Bennett. It is 240 yards long and 60 yards wide, and rises over 140 feet above the water level where it is a hazard to navigation. Historically this rock was known as Flea Island.

In 1876, the small two-masted sealing schooner Leader, 36 feet in length wrecked in the vicinity, according to the San Francisco Alta California, August 12, 1876. Her crew was reported to have continued sealing on Flea Island [Castle Rock] for several weeks before taking a small skiff to Santa Rosa Island for help.

The place name appears on the June 1882 U.S. Coast Survey map Pacific Coast from Santa Monica to Point Conception, including the Santa Barbara Channel, California, J.E. Hilgard, Superintendent.

In the February 1930 Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Leaflet, Eugene Rogers recanted his experiences on Flea Island between 1875 and 1879:

“In those days my brother and I owned a 50 ton schooner, Surprise, and were engaged in killing seals [sea lions] for their oil. We used to go in June to Flea Island off San Miguel where there was a large rookery. The seal were so plentiful that if they had stayed quiet enough, a man could have walked over the whole island on their backs. We used to take a big kettle, set it up on the island and try out the seal blubber in it, feeding the fire with strips of fat. In one season we used to get fifty to one hundred barrels of oil. This we sold to paint dealers in San Francisco for about fifty cents a gallon. The skins were sold to a tannery in Oakland for five to seven cents a pound. The leather was used for belting. The organs of the bull seals we sold to the Chinese. As one Chinaman said, ‘Mandarin no catchum child. He eatee these, he catchum child quick.’ From each bull we also got from six to eight of the stiff whiskers. The Chinamen set these in silver or gold and used them for toothpicks.”

In 1886, ornithologist Clark P. Streator visited the island and wrote:

“There are very few birds that breed on the main island, as a little fox, about the size of a house cat, abounds and destroys their eggs. When the breeding season arrives, they repair to two small islands of about ten acres each in extent, and situated about a mile from the main island, one of which is called Gull Island and the other Flea Island.”

In July 1908 the Anubis wrecked 300 yards east of Castle Rock and was eventually pulled off the reef.


In the News~

June 22, 1878 [SBDP]: “The little schooner H. W. Almy arrived in port this morning, having made since the 14th instant a complete tour of all the islands lying off Santa Barbara. Small as she is, the Almy is enough like her energetic owner, Captain Mullett, not to half do anything, and so she comes back laden with seal oil and abalone shells gathered by the two parties sent out by Captain Mullett some time since. The weather was good all the time, and the logbook records one spin of fifty miles in four hours, and at no time did the lively little schooner show herself lazy. Among other places Captain Mullett stopped at San Miguel and interviewed Fred Forbush, who has charge of the Rogers Brothers sealing expedition, which was fitted out here some time ago. Fred, it is said, takes off his hat and sits on it every time he tells of the San Diego expedition getting ahead of him, and taking up quarters on Flea Island, where the seals most do congregate. He has done better than they have, however, for besides fifteen barrels of oil, he has gathered a quantity of abalone shells, while the San Diego party has only fifty barrels of oil…”

April 17, 1879 [SBDP]: “The enterprising Rogers brothers have sent a crew of men to occupy Flea Island and other seal rookeries near San Miguel Island to take seal during June. In the meantime they will gather shells and hunt the valuable sea otter.”

May 17, 1879 [SBDP]: “The schooner Surprise sailed for Flea Island on a seal killing expedition.”

May 19, 1879 [SBDP]: “The schooner Surprise, from San Miguel and Flea islands, arrived this morning and lays at anchor in the harbor today.”

June 12, 1879 [SBDP]: “Messrs. Rogers Brothers & Co. of this city have 19 men on San Miguel and Flea islands engaged in killing seal for oil...”

June 6, 1883 [LAT]: “Larco, an Italian fisherman of Santa Barbara, in a recent cruise about the Channel Islands discovered a small island, about three acres in extent, bare and rocky, in the vicinity of San Miguel Island, which was completely covered with eggs. The island is covered with a layer of guano, and here hundreds of sea fowls of all descriptions had their nests. Like some of the islands in the Bering Sea, this little point of land was completely covered with eggs, principally those of sea gulls, shags, and saltwater ducks. Larco states that a shipload might be gathered in a short time. But as there was no market for them, their discoverer had no inducement to take a cargo aboard.”

July 2, 1883 [SBDI]: “Larco returned from Flea Island yesterday with a cargo of skins and 15 barrels of oil.”

July 7, 1883 [LAT]: “Island curiosities. The Santa Barbara Press says that the sloop Ocean King, Captain A. Larco, returned to that port last Sunday after a week’s trip to the northern islands. The vessel had on a cargo of twenty-one barrels of seal oil and two tons of seal skins consigned to the Rogers Brothers by the fishers on the islands. Mr. Josiah Doulton, the court reporter, and his son, Les, accompanied Captain Larco on this trip. While at the islands they gathered a large assortment of curiosities. One of them is a petrification of a small tree which is very perfect. Some queer relics of wrecks and the old aboriginal residents were picked up. The scene on Flea Island off the island of San Miguel, as described by Mr. Doulton, must be peculiar. The acres of eggs reported some weeks ago, are now about hatched out. The guano on the island appears all alive with young marine birds. So thick are they that it is difficult to walk without treading in the nests. The voyage was pleasant as well as profitable. A large supply of fine rock cod was brought home.”

July 9, 1883 [SBDI]: “Larco started for Flea Island today to bring back the Dally crew who are stationed there for Rogers Brothers.”

July 10, 1883 [SBDI]: “Larco came back from Flea Island this morning with Rogers Brothers’ crew and brought a cargo of oil, otter skins, fur seal skins, the finest ever seen here for some time, and a number of hides, etc.”

April 20, 1885 [SBDP]: “The Ocean King was today loaded with supplies and ready to sail for San Miguel and Flea Island with Henry Dally and a party of seal hunters.”

May 22, 1885 [SBDP]: “The sloop Ocean King is taking on supplies preparatory to a trip to Flea Island, on the other side of San Miguel Island, with Henry Dally and a party of seal hunters.”

May 22, 1885 [SBDP]: “The sloop Ocean King is taking on supplies preparatory to a trip to Flea Island, on the other side of San Miguel Island, with Henry Dally and a party of seal hunters.”

June 7, 1886 [SBDP]: “The Ocean King has gone to Flea Island with supplies for the Dally sealing party.”

June 26, 1886 [SBDI]: “Sloop Ocean King left this morning for Flea Island to take on a cargo of seal oil and from there she proceeds to San Miguel to discharge supplies for men who are quartered upon the island. We are promised at no distant date a letter pertaining to the natural advantages of the two above mentioned islands which will prove of interest to many of our readers.”

July 2, 1886 [SBDP]: “The Ocean King arrived day before yesterday from Dally’s camp on Flea Island with fifteen barrels of oil and three hundred seal skins.”

July 11, 1887 [SBDI]: “The sloop Brisk arrived yesterday afternoon from Flea and San Miguel Islands, with 30 barrels of seal oil and about ten tons of seal skins. The remainder of the sealing party left at the islands will come over in about a week.”

June 7, 1888 [SBDI]: “The sloop Ocean King left for Flea Island today with a party of sealers on board.”

June 8, 1888 [SBMP]: “The sloop Ocean King is loaded with barrels and kettles and a camping outfit for a party that is going over to Flea Island on a sealing expedition.”

November 20, 1891 [LAT/SB]: “Rogers Brothers have just heard from their recently equipped otter boat. It had been cruising along the lower coast and the party had killed four fine otters worth several hundred dollars. The boat expects soon to go to San Miguel and Flea islands. Hunting is said to have been very indifferent owing to unfavorable weather.”

May 13, 1893 [SBMP]: “The schooner Restless has returned from Flea Island where she has been on a hunting expedition...”

May 16, 1893 [SBMP]: “The schooner Restless leaves this morning for the islands on a fishing trip...”

May 17, 1893 [LAT/SB]: “Maurice C. Kittridge, accompanied by Captain Burtis on the Restless, bound for Flea Island, with supplies for the sealers there.”

May 20, 1894 [LAT/SB]: “Captain Ed Stevens of the sloop San Mateo related a tale of a lonely fisherman, known here only as “’Fatty,’ whom he discovered on Flea Island, a rock a little to the west of San Miguel Island. ‘Fatty’ was one of the Ord party, who left here on a sealing expedition in the Big Loafer, and was left on Flea Island, while the rest of the party came back here. They intended to return for him immediately, but were detained here by the charge of larceny of the Big Loafer, and ‘Fatty’ had to suffer all sorts of hardships, which Captain Stevens tells in a thrilling manner.”

July 13, 1895 [SBDI]: “Flea Island the Scene of Mysterious Changes” as reported by Antonio Caballero. Antonio Caballero, returning recently from an otter hunting expedition to San Miguel and Flea islands reports the reoccurrence of the upheavals of the earth’s surface in that vicinity… The rock layer, formerly an even stretch with unbroken surface, has been torn apart; immense boulders, weighing from 500 to 1000 pounds, thrown up by some force unknown. Tons upon tons of these hard, flint-like rocks had been scattered on every hand, broken from their solid bed as if by a mighty blast.”

July 14, 1895 [SFCall]: “Santa Barbara, July 13. Subterranean forces are again playing havoc around San Miguel. This time no change has taken place in the island itself, so far as is known, but a terrific outburst has occurred deep in the bowels of the earth at the base of that rocky little islet put down on the coast survey maps as Castle Rock, but locally known as Flea Island. Flea Island lies three-quarters of a mile northwest of San Miguel, off the interesting region known as the West End… Flea Island is one of the most important of these [islets]. In clear weather it can be discerned twenty miles away. It is about 600 yards long and has three miniature promontories in a line, the one nearest the island being 150 feet high, sharp and pointed. The second is dome-shaped and sixty feet high. The third and seaward one is forty feet high and rounded. Between the two latter points the sea dashes over it at high tide, but affords a dry passage at a considerable elevation above the sea at low tide. The entire islet is composed of barren rock destitute of any vegetation. There is little travel between the mainland and San Miguel, and less between the ranch house, located in the center of the island, and the west end, where the only other habitation on the island, the tiny shelter of Jake Nidever, the son of the original owner of the island, old Captain Nidever, stands close to shore…”

July 15, 1895 [LAT]: “Word has been received here that San Miguel Island is again kicking up. The report comes through an otter hunter who makes the islands the scene of his hunting expeditions. This hunter states that on June 7 he was in the vicinity of Flea Island (also known as Castle Rock) and that the island and vicinity presented its usual experience, but that on June 9 he again visited this locality when he noticed some decided changes in the configuration of the surrounding neighborhood. In order to give a succinct account of the changes it is necessary to give a slight description of Flea Island. This island is a rocky, barren isle about sixteen hundred feet long, with three buttes rising above the level, in height, respectively, 130, 80 and 40 feet. Between the latter two there is a solid rock isthmus, over which at high tide the ocean flows, but which at low tide is high and dry. Flea Island is from a mile to a mile and a half from San Miguel Island; lying a little south and west of the latter isle. About six miles north of San Miguel lies Richardson’s Rock. The vicinity of these isles is wild and weird, presenting every indication that there was a great convulsion of nature when they came into being. When the otter hunter returned to the locality of Flea Island on the 9th, he found that the isthmus between the lesser buttes had been broken into fragments, the rocks ranging in size from immense boulders to mere slivers. On investigating he found that some of the boulders of immense size had been cast 300 yards or more distant from the isthmus of which they had originally been a part. Continuing his investigations further, the hunter found that there was a line of breakers running off from the southern point of Richardson’s Rock, a line of breakers that had never been seen there before, extending in length about three-quarters of a mile. On June 8 a loud explosion was heard by persons living in the center of San Miguel Island. No movement of the earth was noticed, as in the case of earthquakes, and the islanders were puzzled to account for this freak of nature. Some are of the opinion that this chain of islands is related to the volcano Colima of Mexico. A gentleman of scientific turn of mind of this city suggests that the change in the configuration of Flea Island may have been caused by the ocean having cut into the base of the isle, thus causing it to shift.”

July 20, 1895 [LAT/SB]: “Another account. On Wednesday morning the schooner Restless left this port with a party of eighteen persons bound for Santa Cruz Island on a camping expedition. The Restless was to have returned to Santa Barbara late the same night for the purpose of taking Dr. Hall and some friends to the island. She is now overdue two days, and the relatives and friends of the persons on board have become alarmed… The late convulsions of nature in the vicinity of Flea Island has led some of the watermen to conclude that a new reef may have been thrown up in the channel, and that Captain Burtis may have run onto it, thus wrecking his vessel.”

August 7, 1895 [SBDI]: “Will Devine came over from the island last night. Ramón Vasquez returned at ten o’clock with Will Devine, who has been on the island since March. His mother and younger brother remained at San Miguel, though they are expected in Santa Barbara as soon as a suitable boat can be provided. Mr. Devine reports that the earthquake was not noted on San Miguel, and that since the disturbance at Flea Island on June 8th, there have been no changes...”

August 8, 1895 [SBDI]: “Will Devine was speaking yesterday of the changes on Flea Island, and his statements support those of Antonio Caballero, as published at the time in the Independent. Devine says that he was on San Miguel quite a distance from the shore, and about twelve miles from Flea Island, yet the report was heard so distinctly that he thought some boat had come into the harbor and fired a cannon. With this idea, he went down to the bay and was quite surprised to find no ship in sight.”

July 29, 1905 [SBMP]: “Henry Short and party, returning recently from a two week camp on San Miguel Island, brought some fine photographs of the island scenes, particularly of the sea lion rookeries on Flea Island, a barren rock about a mile off the north shore of San Miguel. Mr. Short has a large collection of these pictures, and thousands of sea lions are seen clinging to the rocks.”

August 6, 1905 [LAT/SB]: “The largest sea lion herd ever located off this coast was discovered a few days ago by a party of Santa Barbara young men while cruising around the islands on the launch Irene. The cruisers report that Flea Island, a small rocky place, standing out of the sea on the north side of San Miguel Island, is the home of thousands of sea lions that are so tame that young ones can be played with like kittens and that hundreds could be caught without the use of ropes or nets. The party consisted of Henry Short, a boatman who is familiar with the Channel Islands, Basil Faulding, Edwin Bradbury and J. R. Reynolds. They have just returned from their two weeks cruise and brought back a number of photographs taken on their trip… Flea Island is fifty miles out from this city and can be reached by a day’s sail…”

July 22, 1908 [SBI]: “With her crew singing and laughing on her decks and her 19 passengers safely camped in an improvised sailcloth tent on Flea Island, the big German freight steamer Anubis lies on a long sunken reef half a mile west of Otter Harbor off the west coast of San Miguel Island… The Anubis lies 300 yards east of Flea Island, or Castle Rock, as it is known in the official charts. This is a barren rock 300 feet long and rising 145 feet from the sea…”

July 22, 1908 [SBMP]: “Unless the crews of Mexican and Chilean stevedores are soon brought to the mainland from barren Flea Island, the scene of the wreck of the steamer Anubis, bloodshed and death threatens. The hot-tempered gangs , cooped in narrow quarters in flimsy tents, are armed factions, ready for the spark that will set passions aglow and blood to flowing. Petty fights in which knives were drawn have ensued frequently during the ship’s unhappy position. The work of throwing over the cargo also embittered both factions…”

July 23, 1908 [LAH]: “Santa Barbara, July 22. Four thousand tons of barley in the hold of the steamer Anubis, which ran on a sunken reef off San Miguel Island Monday in a dense fog, are conspiring with the rocks to demolish the ship. The vessel lies teetering on a sharp ledge, with bow and stern in deep water, her under hull amidships punctured. The barley, tightly packed in the lower hold, is swelling, and the steel hull is groaning under the bursting pressure of the enlarging grain. Already cracks an inch wide have appeared in the deck, and there is every prospect of the vessel’s breaking in twain at any moment. Captain Von Salzen alone sleeps aboard, compelling eighty-six of his crew and passengers to remain on Flea Island in camp. They have little fresh water, their supplies having been stored in the hold, now containing sixteen feet of water. The ship lies but six feet out of water, listed to port…”

July 24, 1908 [SBI]: “Wrecked ship breaking up. Captain A. F. Pillsbury, surveyor for the marine underwriters, left for the wreck of the German freighter Anubis this morning on the revenue cutter Manning… As soon as it is decided that the vessel cannot be saved her crew will be taken back to San Francisco and the camp at Flea Island abandoned…”

July 26, 1908 [LAT/SB]: “Unless the crews of Mexican and Chilean stevedores are soon brought to the mainland from barren Flea Island, the scene of the wreck of the steamer Anubis, there may be bloodshed and death. The hot-tempered gangs, cooped in narrow quarters, are armed factions, ready for the spark that will ignite passions. Petty fights, in which knives were drawn, have taken place frequently since the ship went aground… Captain Rosaline Vasquez of the Gussie M, and Captain Ramon Vasquez of the Baltic, both arriving today, told of the ugly situation and the revenue cutter Manning, with Captain Pillsbury of the Marine Underwriters of San Francisco on board, reached here tonight and the story was confirmed…”

July 29, 1908 [LAT/SB]: “With a great hole stove in her port side, the steamer Anubis on the reef off San Miguel Island, nears her final swirl into the waters of the Pacific. Captain Von Salzen has abandoned hope. Sunday and yesterday westerly gales picked up high seas which caused the wrecker Greenwood to withdraw to safety, and all hands deserted the wreck and gathered on Flea Island. This morning a section of the steel plates on the port side of the Anubis gave way and sank, leaving an aperture through which breakers dashed in fury. Power craft on salvage bent, returned here tonight, with tales of the beginning of the end. On Flea Island, Chilean and Mexican stevedores, who, with weapons ready, have menaced one another for days, have declared a truce… Everything moveable has been taken off of her. Hundreds of tons of flour, sugar and grain have been salvaged by local mariners and the stuff is finding ready sales at local stores.”

July 30, 1908 [LAT/SB]: “A daring diver has examined the bottom of the wrecked steamer Anubis and her owners have determined to save the ship, if possible, by a novel method. The vessel is resting on an even keel, about one hundred and fifty feet of her amidships being on rock, which is soft in structure. The bottom of the ship, the diver found, is not so seriously damaged as had been supposed. New holes in the steel plates of the ship will be drilled and torn-off plates will be reset with bolts or plugs. The forward and after holds are uninjured and from these the water will be pumped. A donkey engine has been set up on deck, and when two holds are cleared of water freight will be removed. Two anchor cables have been trailed astern and when the ship is patched up and lightened the wreckers hope to be able to move her. This operation will consume a week and its success depends upon favorable weather. The steam schooner Westport is alongside the wreck loading. Camp on Flea Island has been abandoned and all hands are living on the wreck.”

April 1, 1925 [LAT]: “Off the coast of California in San Miguel Island, about a mile out from Maguel [sic], is a double island called Flea Island. Here the big Steller sea lions make their home. A few years ago I was on Flea Island, taking pictures of the lions and their young. They paid little attention to us. The greater part of the herd was out in the water. The mothers of these cubs who were old enough were teaching them to swim. Three large killer whales came toward the island, swimming slowly, side by side, now above, now below the surface, but never going down far enough to submerge the dorsal fins… Henry M. Van Depolele in Adventure Magazine.”

In 1934, Robert W. Knox placed an unmarked survey station on the “sharp point of northwest end of rocky island.” This triangulation station appears on the San Miguel Island West topographic map. [UTM 10: North 3,771,211 East 736,402]. In 1950, Rachel Carson wrote in The Sea Round Us: “Explorers and sealers coming upon it in the fog were reminded of a castle and named it Castle Rock. At the present time there remains only one or two pinnacles of the castle.” Today sea lions still haul out here, and several species of seabirds nest on Castle Rock. [Note: There was another Castle Rock, offshore by the present day Santa Barbara harbor.]

December 14, 2003 [SBNP]: “…In 1976, commercial abalone diver Jay Worrell was diving near Castle Rock off the northwestern side of San Miguel Island. Without warning, he was seized around the right hip by a great white shark. In the process, his air hose was severed. Mr. Worrell was forced to surface and was picked up by his tender before the shark returned. This was to be the first of four attacks at Castle Rock. In 1985, Chris Massahos was lobster diving for sport near Castle Rock when he saw a white shark swimming toward him. Mr. Massahos swam toward the dive boat underwater, watching for the shark. He ran out of air when he was close to the boat and headed for the surface. Looking down, he was horrified to see the white shark swimming rapidly after him. He curled up into a ball. The shark’s head collided with Mr. Massahos’ shoulder, and its teeth grazed his scuba tank... In 1992 Castle Rock claimed its third victim when commercial sea urchin diver Andy Schupe felt a tug on his swim fin. He looked around in time to see a shark swimming away. Mr. Schupe made it back to his boat but had to seek medical attention for a wound on his foot… In 1994 tragedy struck when commercial sea urchin diver James Robinson was attacked and killed by a white shark off Castle Rock. He had been seized by the right thigh and hip and suffered so much blood loss that he could not be saved…”