How We Know What We Know About the Channel Islands
Author Corinne Heyning Laverty Reveals the Archipelago’s Science History in ‘North America’s Galapagos’
By Matt Kettmann | Published August 20, 2020
We take for granted how much of a scientific wonderland exists on the Channel Islands, that eight-isle archipelago that stretches from San Nicolas Island off of the coast of San Diego all the way up to San Miguel Island, whose sandy, windswept stretches linger off the edge of Point Conception in western Santa Barbara County. From rare animals such as the island fox and spotted skunk to fossils of pygmy mammoths to landmark invasive-species-removal projects to quite possibly the earliest evidence of human-settlement existence in the New World, the remote, mostly undeveloped islands are treasure troves of endless discoveries.
But how do we know that? Why are the Channel Islands’ scientific values so well accepted today?
One significant answer is the Channel Islands Biological Survey (CIBS) of 1939 to 1941, when a multidisciplinary team of more than 30 scientists and researchers spent weeks and weeks scouring each island for animals, plants, fossils, arch sites, and so much more. Halted prior to its planned conclusion due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II — indeed, one expedition was on Santa Rosa Island when news of the Japanese attacks on Hawai‘i came through — the CIBS research somewhat faded into the archives as time went by.
But Corinne Heyning Laverty was’t ready to let that happen. Toward the end of successful careers in the defense and banking industries, Laverty — who regularly visited Catalina Island for years, is the widow of a renowned whale scientist, and knew the other islands primarily from scuba diving — went to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County with an idea for a book. The archivist instead suggested she dust off the old CIBS files, and Laverty was immediately fascinated with the characters and stories that she found amid the field notes, handwritten correspondence, and crusty photographs.
Over time, Laverty intensified her research, eventually discovering more of the scientists’ personal collections at other libraries and universities. A decade later in February 2020, Laverty published North America’s Galapagos: The Historic Channel Islands Biological Survey, an engaging tale of these expeditions. Decorated with in-depth character portraits of the primary players, behind-the-scenes analysis of the politics of funding such an ambitious mission, and plenty of up-to-date information about the science of the islands — particularly related to their archaeological riches — North America’s Galapagos serves as a clearinghouse for understanding our Channel Islands in one narrative sweep. In reading chapters before I fell to sleep at night, I found myself dreaming about island adventures of my own, a very welcome escape from the shut-in monotony of our current pandemic life.
I spoke with Laverty over the phone for nearly an hour last week, and what follows is a streamlined version of our conversation.
How did you get into the Channel Islands?
I became a widow when my children were pretty young. My husband was a whale scientist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. I had done a lot of environmental work, and I was on the board of the oldest whale conservation society. That’s where I met him.
I hadn’t taken a science class, really, since high school. But I got to be close to all these wonderful scientists. They’re such an interesting, crazy bunch. They’re so passionate about what they do. They do it for love, not money.
What were some of your first island trips?
They started when I first moved to California. I used to go to Catalina a lot. I think of Catalina, especially Two Harbors, as California in the 1950s. No one locks their doors. One lost wallet is a major crime statistic that will skew the data on the whole island. I loved that island culture.
I was also a scuba diver, and I dove a lot of the islands, including San Clemente. I was out there getting my certification on a night dive. We all came up and had a beer and went into the hold to go to sleep. All of the sudden, there was this clanking and bright lights and bull horns saying that we had to move our boat because they were gonna start bombing. Then the Navy guys boarded our boat and told us to leave.
How did this book come about?
I was working part-time at the bank, wanting to be home with my kids a little more when they were elementary-school age. I came up with an idea for a book, but it wasn’t this book. I went to the museum and pitched it to the archivist. The archivist said, “If you’re gonna go through all of that, then you should write this story.” She pushed these dusty boxes to me that said “1939-1941 Channel Islands Biological Survey.”
To be honest, I thought that sounded really boring. But I opened up those files and found photographs and yellowing newspaper articles and handwritten letters between the scientists and the people living on the islands, like Herb Lester and the Vail & Vickers families. I found supply lists and progress reports and interoffice memorandums. I fell immediately in love with the people who lived out on the islands. I thought, “I can write this story.”
There are a number of points in the book where you do some pondering for the scientists, speculating on what they may have been thinking.
There is a lot of blank space, a lot of blank pages, a lot of things I didn’t know. I decided that I could use that to my advantage by posing questions where I didn’t have information. I got to make it up, in a way. I was clear about it. It’s a nonfiction book. But I ask, “Did they think this? Did he imagine that?” I used it in a very deliberate way to fill in places where I thought the narrative could use a little punching up.
Would these scientists have accepted the modern interpretations and theories about the islands, which occasionally differ a bit from their own?
They would have been happy that something they started kept going. There is momentum. That’s what all scientists want. They will debate every little thing, but I honestly think that scientists are such an inquisitive group. Even if they don’t agree with you, they’re willing to discuss it.
We are so fascinated by the conclusions of science, yet not as concerned with the process of collecting the research. Why is the process of science so important to understand?
The book really evolved. Initially, it was about who they were and why they did the study. But then it kept evolving into a behind-the-scenes of how museum field work gets done and how tedious it is. They brought one ounce of cinnamon with them so they could bake a pie! When I finished it and stepped back, it was actually [UCSB grad and Smithsonian archaeologist] Torrey Rick who said that this is a great book about field work.
Did you have a favorite scientist?
I did love John Adams Comstock. He was such a gentleman scientist renaissance man. But I couldn’t find many of his notes or letters. He was very proper. He never wrote anything down that would be condemning of anybody, but he must have hated that museum director!
And Art Woodard went to six islands and left voluminous notes, so his character had a very good knowledge base.
But [Jack C.] von Bloeker, [Jr.], he was so flawed as a human being. He wanted to be the next great [Charles] Darwin or [Frederick] Grimmel and he worked so hard. He had a couple of divorces, and his son said that he had a real mean streak and was obsessive compulsive. He smoked like a chimney. He was my favorite character. He worked so hard and loved it so much.
Were there grander book release plans that got upended by the pandemic?
It came out on February 15, 2020. The launch was at the Natural History Museum on February 19. It was well attended, a wonderful event. I had a whole nationwide speaking tour that I arranged myself, including at that Smithsonian, the New York City Audubon, the Charleston Audubon. That all just got canned.
But even with the first four to five talks, I did manage to land on the L.A. Times best-seller list for soft-cover nonfiction book. I’m hoping to continue to do Zoom talks.
It seems that these stories really resonate with people, no matter the situation.
When you meet people who have an island story, they want to tell you about it. People just love these islands.
4•1•1 Corinne Heyning Laverty is presenting a webinar based on North America’s Galapagos: The Historic Channel Islands Biological Survey ($29.95; University of Utah Press) on Thursday, August 20, at 7 p.m. through the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. Registration is required via sbmm.org/santa-barbara-events or by calling (805) 456-8744. See channelislandscalifornia.com for more on the book.