Catalina Ecotourism

By Christina Irvin

Catalina Island is a gem located twenty-two miles off the Southern California Coast, and currently has nine protected areas surrounding it. It is part of the Southern California Bite, which, according to the MLPA (1999), provides habitats for at least 1,800 marine species including fish, algae, sea grass, sea turtles, birds, seals, otters, sea lions, dolphins, and invertebrates. The pristine environment is the main attraction for tourists to this island. William Wrigley Jr., the Wrigley’s chewing gum founder, bought the controlling interest of the Santa Catalina Island Company (SCIC) in 1919 with the ultimate goal of preserving the island for all future generations. He envisioned a place for families to enjoy the natural wonders. In 1972, Wrigley’s family established the Catalina Nature Conservancy and donated the land to foster stewardship. The SCIC mission is “committed to preserving the natural beauty and unique character of Santa Catalina Island” (SCIC 2012).

The Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island viewed from a hillside to the east.

Every year families and researchers alike flock to Catalina to either scuba dive or snorkel the amazing kelp forests and marine world, kayak through deep, clear, blue waters with seals and sea lions, fish for lobster and other species, as well as hike and camp around the island.  Eco-tourism not only supports the Island’s economy but it also inspires the protection of the natural habitats. This industry adds value to preserving the natural aesthetics because it encourages more visitors and greater recreational activity and creates a desire to return. Tourism also develops an awareness of the environmental impacts and the habitats that are at risk. In 2011, the Conservancy created a 20-year master plan, Imagine Catalina: Visions for the Future, with the goal to “look into the future and create a plan of programs and infrastructure improvements that will enable [the Conservancy] to realize the conservation, education and recreation mission over the long term” (Catalina Conservancy 2011).

On March 20th 2012, the Catalina Island Conservancy presented plans to take its first steps following the master plan.  Part of the plan included buying the historic Catherine Hotel in Avalon. The Conservancy’s president, Ann Muscat, hopes that Avalon will provide a welcoming and easily accessible entrance to the Island’s 42,000 acres of nature preserve. This purchase will allow the Conservancy to expand on educational and recreational programs by providing accommodations for eco-tourists, researchers and students. Leslie Baer, the Conservancy’s chief of educational outreach and marketing said, “We’re excited about having a new opportunity to share information about Catalina’s wild places and why the Island is so special as an ecological destination. Our staff and partners are doing groundbreaking conservation and science, and we’re proud to share those stories.”

Unfortunately, some of the Conservancy’s scientists and biologists oppose the upcoming changes because they feel there is greater emphasis on improving the economy than on preserving the local environment and that “conservation is no longer a passion” (Sahagun 2012). Although there is some dissent, the Conservancy has been successful in restoring the Island to its more natural state by minimizing the non-native species and reviving the native species, such as the Catalina Island Fox. The hope is that by providing greater accommodations for eco-tourists and researchers, this kind of success will prosper and that the revenue generated by the Island’s changes will continue to support conservation, eco-tourism, and the appreciation for Catalina’s natural wonders.

After scuba diving in Big Fisherman’s Cove at the USC Wrigley Marine Institute and hiking the local trails, my appreciation for this Island has only grown with each visit. It never ceases to amaze me when I’m swimming through the kelp forests and the sun shines through and highlights the blues and greens under water and magnifies the bright orange of the garibaldi. On another dive, my class-mate Jordan and I spotted an octopus swimming from one rock cave to another and watched its colors change. After an afternoon dive, there is nothing like hiking to the top of a hill overlooking the cove and ocean beyond to watch the sunset. These are the experiences that I hope other tourists encounter and feel the same admiration for this remarkable place. The Imagine Catalina master plan seeks to improve its stewardship through promoting these activities and the Island’s unique, breath- taking beauty.

After just recently diving in Apra Harbor, Guam on Western Shoals Reef, I have an even greater understanding for ecotourism and the importance of supporting ecotourism efforts. Diving through what seem like rolling hills of coral and then coming across huge elephant ear sponges that are only found at this site in Guam are inspiration enough to maintain and promote these areas with such rich and unique biodiversity. Ecotourism draws visitors into these remote and relatively unknown locations where all you see under forty feet of turquoise blue water is an expanse of colorful coral and tropical fish. It is regions like Guam that would truly benefit from the awareness that ecotourism provides.

“About Us.” Visit Catalina Island – The Santa Catalina Island Company. Web. 18 May 2012.

“Catalina Island Conservancy.” Catalina Island Conservancy. Web. 18 May 2012. “Conservancy’s ‘Imagine Catalina’ Charts Course for Short Term and Next 20 Years.”

California Department of Fish and Game Resources Agency. 1999. Marine Life Protection Act.

Sahagun, Louis. “Tourism Clashes with Research in Planning Catalina’s Future.” Los Angeles Times 21 Mar. 2012

About the Author: Christina Irvin is a senior environmental studies major from Los Angeles.

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