Key point: Sailors must look out for non-human threats that are lurking below the waves.
Spend some time with Google Earth, an atlas or a globe and you will see that California, for peoples used to the Atlantic, was indeed the far side of the world well into the nineteenth century. What is now one of the most populated, navalized coastlines on Earth remained poorly known even to mariners.
Somehow such mystery lingers, for once the world’s most powerful warship nearly wrecked herself upon a drowned island one hundred miles west of San Diego. Chris Dixon, who masterfully chronicled the origin of giant-wave surfing in his 2011 book Ghost Wave, surfaced this sea story of the USS Enterprise’s 1985 encounter with the Cortes Bank, where rock, water and wind collide to form sea monsters.
The Channel Islands of Southern California make up the visible heights of a vast submerged mountainous region nearly the size of the Sierra Nevada—the Southern California Borderland. Reaching from Point Conception to the north coast of Baja California and stretching hundreds of miles out to sea, the Borderland forms a huge landscape of peaks, ridges and basins up to a mile deep.
The first people to settle the Channel Islands during the last Ice Age experienced places very different from today. Sea levels fifteen thousand years ago were one hundred feet lower or more. Pygmy mammoths only six feet tall roamed the single great island off the Santa Barbara coast now made up of the four islands of the Channel Islands National Park.
As sea levels rose, the most remote island beyond San Clemente submerged beneath the waves, leaving a miles-wide shoal—Cortes Bank—and a fang of rock a few feet deep—Bishop Rock. But the bulk of the island remained, forming a huge buttress thousands of feet deep sitting square in the path of waves rolling in from the western Pacific.
For centuries the only regular sea traffic by Europeans along the west coast of North America were the Manila galleons, the Spanish warship-freighters loaded with billions of dollars’ worth of treasure that made landfall around Cape Mendocino on their journey home to Acapulco, Mexico.