Over the last two centuries, some 300 ships have met their fate among the rocks and reefs of the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. Stately four-masted steamships ferrying gold and lumber, nimble rumrunners dodging the Coast Guard, rustbucket harpooners hunting seal and otter — all done in by the tricky currents and erratic weather that churn through the crossing. Fog has always been the real killer, especially in the days before GPS. It can come on fast and thick, frightening even the saltiest of captains and forcing them to navigate blindly. The curved west side of San Miguel Island is known as the “catcher’s mitt” because of it.
Among the scores of wrecks out there, historians have identified just 25. The rest are either lost forever or just waiting to be discovered. But finding them isn’t easy. Their remains are often camouflaged under marine growth. “You really gotta take a loooong look,” explained Robert Schwemmer, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration diver and archeologist known as the Indiana Jones of West Coast shipwrecks. He uses old photos and newspaper clippings to get a general idea of where a boat might be before organizing an expedition. “You try to identify manmade shapes, like straight lines and symmetrical curves. Most people can swim right over them and not see them.”