American Conservation Experience (ACE) Volunteer Vacation - Catalina Island

Catalina Island, CaliforniaCatalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles, California is a 35km long desert island. The island was originally home to the Tongva peoples but since colonial times has been the property of Spain, Mexico and finally the US. The Island has two main towns, Avalon and Two Harbors, that are serviced by a ferry from the mainland., there is also an airfield near Middle Ranch.

In the 1920’s, much of island was purchased by the Wrigley (chewing gum) family who began to develop the island for tourism. In the 1970’s the Wrigleys established the Catalina Conservancy and in 1975 deeded 90% of the island to them.

Bison, Catalina Island, CaliforniaThe island is home to 50 endemic animal species but the animal you are most likely to see is a Bison, brought across for a movie in 1924 and left behind. The Conservancy used to ship them out but the cost was too high and now they are just let be and their numbers controlled.

We have come to Catalina Island to do a volunteer holiday with American Conservation Experience (ACE) for 11 days. ACE works with the Catalina Conservancy on conservation projects and currently brings a group of volunteers every 2 weeks. Our group was large with 9 volunteers taking part. We met at LAX and, when our camp leader arrived from his delayed flight, took a shuttle to the port for the ferry. By mid-afternoon we were on the Island and met our other camp leader Ashley and were taken to our camp site.

ACE Volunteers, Catalina Island, CaliforniaThe ACE campsite is very simple, located next to the main Two Harbors campsite it is only accessible through a gully. It is a broad area that offers a great view over the harbour. The amenities are located in the campground itself, including toilets and cold showers (If volunteers want a hot shower they are available in Two Harbors for a small fee). ACE supply tents for each volunteer so they have their own space. The campsite is where we have breakfast, prepare lunch and rest.

The University of Southern California, Wrigley Institute, offers ACE volunteers the use of their kayaks and snorkelling equipment after a brief safety orientation. The campus has a dining hall where we have our evening meal. There is also Wi-Fi available here.

The volunteer work is given to ACE via the Catalina Conservancy in Avalon. During our stay the Conservancy were quite disorganised and seemed unable to inform us of our work schedule more than a day in advance which was disappointing. The work they did provide was Invasive Species removal (fennel and cactus), seed collection and processing (tar weed, black sage, white sage, and bladder pods), and the installation of a fence at an archaeological site.

Prior to any work the group has a safety circle. The safety circle has a few components: Stretches, a safety tip, and a Daily Question. Each participant provides a stretch and tip and an answer for the question.

Digging a hole for a fence post, Catalina Island, CaliforniaThe archaeological site was an interesting project. Four of us went with one of the Conservancy officers to a remote location on the island where skull fragments had been discovered at a midden. We were given a brief tour of the site and an explanation of the history. Nearby the site we dug two holes, sank two posts and sealed them with concrete before attaching the large chain to block road access.

Tar Weed is an indigenous species that is utilised by the Conservancy for site rehabilitation. The group were driven to a large open hilltop where the plant was seeding. We scoured the area collecting up to 90% of the seeds from each plant. After collection we went to Middle Ranch for processing. Processing the seed involves separating the seed from any extraneous material, a labour intensive process. The seed is then stored for planting later.

Collecting Tar Weed, Catalina Island, California

The invasive species removal was for fennel which dominates many areas and inhibits the growth of indigenous species. Removing fennel can be physically taxing as their tap root goes quite deep, and working in the direct sun adds to the fatigue but you know you have done good work. While taking part in this Rina and I also suggested that we remove any litter from the area as well, which while not much, we think is an essential part of any conservation activity. A curious thing I found was that the Conservancy did not want the Invasive species taken to a dump for destruction but left where it was dug up to dry out. I would have thought removal and destruction would be better than leaving material to become potential fuel for fire.

When we signed up for the ACE Vacation, our expectations were that the activities would be well organised and that we would be kept quite busy while also learning about the specific environment we were helping to protect. Unfortunately, due to the Conservancy not providing adequate projects and assignments this expectation was not met. This meant that we were able to have a tour of Avalon and visit the Botanical gardens there as well as take advantage of special seminar for the archaeology students at USC.

We were with a good group of people, which always makes things better, and we did learn a bit and do a little productive work, although it would have been better for more structure. We had a guest leader for a couple of days in the second week who normally runs the Grand Canyon ACE vacations who told us that the alliance with the National Parks Service is much more formalised and productive, offering a greater variety of experiences, so perhaps I would try that next time.

In our leisure time we swam at the nearby beach, kayaked or snorkelled at USC, or just relaxed in two Harbors. The waters around the island are clear and blue, and a short distance from the harbour is a small island with a colony of sea lions that can be reached by Kayak. The waters around the USC dock were surprisingly deep and contained a small kelp forest to snorkel through that included a variety of fish in good numbers.

Kayaking, Catalina Island, CaliforniaSea Lions, Catalina Island, California

Snorkeling, Catalina Island, CaliforniaSnorkeling, Catalina Island, CaliforniaSnorkeling, Catalina Island, California

In all, I enjoyed my time on the island but I would have liked a more structured work schedule.

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