Author David Helvarg on the history of the Channel Islands and his first time in California

Nov 4, 2016

David Helvarg is an ocean advocate and author of The Golden Shore: California's Love Affair with the Sea. He will be giving a series of speeches and book signings here on the Central Coast. The Cambria Land Trust will host Helvarg on Sunday afternoon from 3-5 on November 13, in Cambria at Vet's Hall. He'll also be signing books at Barnes & Noble Saturday afternoon November 12 and give a talk at the Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach the evening of November 12.

Note: This interview was edited for time and clarity.

Zender: The Golden Shore has so much information in it. Tribal history, European explorers to modernize surfing and scuba diving. This list can go on and on. How would you describe the book The Golden Shore?

Helvarg: Oh I'd say it's the Pacific defines us as a people and a culture. It's really about well without the Pacific we have the ocean. California just long skinny clone of Nevada. So I think that we're a late maritime frontier that with a lot of European settlement started by kind of exploiting it. Getting rid of the native peoples, of wildlife, anything that had feathers or flukes. But over time as we developed as we kind of discovered how much value a living ocean had for us and we changed it. And today with all the problems we're facing, particularly environmental problems and ocean planet that's facing these cascading disasters, overfishing and pollution and loss of habitat and climate change. And yet we're looking to find solutions faster. You know, grow them faster than the problems. And I realized at a certain point that California is the solution. We've got 40 million people we've got the world's sixth largest economy. And we've still learned to live well with our coast in Ocean. And I think the Golden Shore is just the story of how we've come to be good stewards.

Zender: What made you interested in writing about this?

Helvarg: I've always been interested in the ocean. I grew up on the East Coast for the most part. As a kid, I thought I'd grow up and be a frogman or an oceanographer. And then I got distracted by movements and moments of my youth and became an activist and a journalist. I spent about 30 years in this schizophrenia state, where I go off to cover wars and epidemics and politics so I could come home to San Diego and body surf. I relocated to California when I was 21. And there was that sense of coming home to a place you've never been before. And so I always try to cover the ocean as much as I can. You know, the Navy, offshore oil and gas. And when I finally had the chance to write my first ocean book, things just rolled from there. And ultimately, when I was discussing, as I say, these cascading disasters we're facing in the ocean, people would say, "like what solutions do you have to offer?" And eventually I realized the solution at scale is what we're doing in California. You know, from surfers who just went into the ocean to get their stoke and came out with ear infections and gastrointestinal problems. And so formed activist group like Surfrider Foundation and one of its early protest in Huntington Beach in 1990, was like, "No way dude. We don't want your crude." And now they have 50,000 members in a dozen countries. To places like the port of L.A. and Long Beach, the largest port complex in the Western Hemisphere. And ten years ago there was no growth there that terminals couldn't expand because there were lawsuits from the surrounding communities of San Pedro and Wilmington-Long Beach that had the highest childhood as rate the highest cancer rates in the state because of pollution coming out of the ports. And so they hired Geraldine Knatz, not only first woman but the first marine biologist to run a major port. She ran the Port Los Angeles. She held a first joint Harbor commission meeting since 1928 between the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach. And they did a clean air action plan. They got rid of a lot of the polluting trucks and they installed what they call cold ironing on shore power so that the ships that they came in would plug into the ports instead of burning bunker fuel which is like the dregs of the petroleum process. So she reduced air pollution 70 percent within like, five years. And lawsuits went away and the port terminals expanded again. And this is a port where a billion dollars a day crosses these docks. It's a great example of doing right by your marine environment and your coastal environment does right by your economics by your economy. And now she's went on become head of International Association of ports and harbors where 50 major ports around the world are now working together to reduce their carbon emissions and clean up pollution. So California really sets a model in so many ways.

Zender: Do you remember your first time being in California?

Helvarg: I talk about in my book Saved by the Sea but my friends were doing anti-war organizing in San Diego. And their house was shot into they called me up in Boston, a miserable rainy winter day in Boston, and asked me to come out and help do security. So I got to San Diego, the ocean beach section. And it was Thursday nights when these right wing terrorists called the Secret Army Organization usually did their tactics. So I remember I was about 20, staying up all night with a 12-gauge shotgun, waiting for an attack that didn't come. And when it was time to sleep, instead of sleeping, I went out onto the beach and it was like just this diamond speckled full moon reflecting on the Pacific just watching the waves lapping ashore all night. And then two days later, there was a concert benefit for the local underground newspaper at the cliffs in Ocean Beach. There was a band up on the cliffs. And there were boys and girls my age throwing frisbees in this crisp cool water. And I just felt again like I'd come home to a place I'd never been before. I was sort of wading in the water and realized this is where I was going to live. It was just the quality of it. I spent the next 10 years it was sort of my last decade by Tower Two. And in Ocean Beach learning to bodysurfing not drown proofing myself and going off to do the work I did. But always coming back to that beach.

Zender: You talk about the Channel Islands quite a bit in this book. Can you talk about the research that you did there?

Helvarg: Yeah, not enough because I haven't been to enough. But of course part of the part of the opportunity the book was I got to go to places like Catalina, which is the most developed of the Channel Islands. Even there it's just basically town in a sort of very small town. Yet again the much of it's been protected. And you see the Catalina Conservancy got rid of a lot of invasive species so that endemic the native island foxes have returned. And it's amazing above and below water where we've expanded these marine protected areas around Fisherman's Cove there by the Marine Lab has expanded from half a square of all to three square miles. And this is an example where you know it took ten years of battling but the state to establish this network of marine protected areas that started in and now run through the Channel Islands up and down the coast. Sixteen percent of our sea water is protected. It's kind of like taking a world class state park system and putting it in the water column. Almost anywhere else in the world the Channel Islands would be covered in hotels and resorts. The fact that they're mostly wild has had tremendous impact and both the natural sense and in all the economic benefits of healthy seas. I mean, most a lot of people say lots. Most people may know the Farallon Islands is a place where white sharks congregate every fall to feed on juvenile elephant seals. Kind of our Galapagos. And I got to visit them too, writing for this book. But I don't think as many people know that the Channel Islands along with their onshore wilderness is also offshore the world's greatest congregation of blue whales. Five hundred blue whales gather there every year. And yet, this is the largest animal ever to live on Earth. I mean they're larger than dinosaurs. There are a ton of a blue whale can weigh as much as an elephant. And so the amazing thing is to be in a state the most populous state and yet have this abundance of offshore wilderness and wild life where I've literally been stuck in traffic on Pacific Crest Highway in L.A. and look through these between these multimillion dollar box houses and seen pods of dolphins making better time than I do you leave the port of L.A. like I say on l'art the largest port in the Western Hemisphere. And on the ferry ride out to the Channel Island Catalina you'll almost every time he hundreds of white sided dolphins passing by. It's kind of almost takes me back to the first chapter the Golden Shore is called native tides and it's the Chumash abyss that they would say that they left the island and came to the mainland on a rainbow that the Creator built. But he said Don't look down and those who did look down fell off the rainbow and into the ocean. But he took pity on them and turned them into Dolphin. So when whenever you heading out there and see these pods of dolphins. I always wonder who they are. But there's an amazing history both in California's Islands and it's rock Isles. And just the fact that we have both this amazing urban coast. Twenty five million people live in our coastal counties up to San Francisco that is that is still managed to protect much of its spectacular waterfront and recreational values along with industrial uses. And then of course you get north of the Golden Gate those five northern counties almost half the state in Berlin in Sonoma Mendocino Humboldt the Del Norte County. It's less than a million people living in that coast up there.

Zender: So in reading this book I was having this argument in my mind of whether this is an environmental book or a history book. What would you say this book is in terms it's genre?

Helvarg: And I actually got named a top literary travel book. I'd say it's just my homage to California. It's environmental. But also I've had friends use it as they've traveled highway one up and down the coast just to kind of reflect on the bits and pieces they're passing through. I think it's kind of my love song to a place that I think is succeeding. And my late friend Peter Douglas said, "The coaches never saved souls being saved." It's a history book and that Californians keep rediscovering their relationship with this ocean wilderness. I mean, from the best-selling book of 1840 was two years before the mast. Richard Henry Dana Jr. acquainted America with California when he came out here to treat cattle hides. That there was a war and a gold rush and it transformed it. And during World War II, I lived by the Rosie the Riveter National Park which is literally the sailboat. Or Reno that I live next to it built 737 Liberty Ships in four years in World War II and the War transformed California. And we had the second boom and it's a book about California and the sea. And a lot of it is environmental in a lot of it is historical. And a lot of it's just good stories about surfers and sailors and people who go in the sea to come out of it. They get so much out of it in terms of recreation transportation trade energy protein just a sense of wonder that they've decided to give something back and in doing so have to preserve something of the be beautiful and fun that that hopefully will continue through the generations.