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The Fascinating History of Point Lobos, CA

This article was first published in the Epoch Times on April 18, 2022.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, seven miles south of Monterey, California is one of the most gorgeous spots on the West Coast. Though the underwater preserve comprises over 9,907 acres, the land open to the public is surprisingly compact–just 400 acres bordered by a six mile perimeter trail. However, this meeting of land and water contains stunning views, a diverse range of animals and plants, and a fascinating cultural history.

Map of Central Calif. showing Point Lobos Reserve, courtesy of Google Maps

Bird Island

A large rock called Bird Island can be seen from the Bird Island Trail at China Cove. During the nesting season (April – July), thousands of Brandt’s Cormorants breed and nest on the hard ground of Bird Island. The male chooses the nest site, then spends time throwing his head back and bobbing his wings to attract a mate and ward off rivals. After he’s won a mate, he gathers nesting material (seaweed, eelgrass, and algae) which the female will use to build her nest. Both parents incubate and care for their young.

A view of Bird’s Island
A male Brandt’s Cormorant tries to impress a potential mate

Harbor Seals

During the month of April, mother Harbor Seals come ashore to the beaches to have their pups. A docent explained that through the “miracle of nature,” the mothers are able to delay implantation of their fertilized eggs for up to two months, while they wait until water temperature and food sources are ideal. The mothers all give birth around the same time. They only stay with their pups for a month. This gives the pups thirty days to nurse and hopefully gain enough fat to support them for the rest of the year. Pups must learn to hunt on their own. But Harbor Seal milk is the richest of all mammals, containing 50% fat (by comparison, cow milk contains 4% fat).

A mother Harbor Seal bonds with her pup. Another pup lays close by.

The Trees

Monterey Cypress and Monterey Pine are indigenous to this area. For thousands of years however, the hills in the reserve were nearly bare of trees. Native Americans burned trees and brush, and later Spanish missionaries and Portuguese settlers maintained the grassy hills for raising cattle. In the 1930s, after Point Lobos became a state reserve, the trees began to recover. The Allan Memorial Grove in Point Lobos is one of only two places in the world where Monterey Cypress trees grow naturally (the other is in Pebble Beach, CA). Monterey Pine is also unique to the Central Coast of California, though a variant grows on two islands off of Baja California, Mexico.

Monterey Cypress trees on the left, and Monterey pines on the right, frame this photo of the ocean.

The Whaler’s Cabin

Visitors can learn about the history of Point Lobos in the small but mighty Whaler’s Cabin located on Whaler’s Cove. The cabin has been in existence (with  modifications) since at least 1850.

The Whaler’s Cabin museum

Earliest Inhabitants

Rumsien Native Americans lived in Point Lobos seasonally for over 2,500 years. In 1770, the land was claimed for cattle ranching by Father Junipero Serra of Spain and the Carmel Mission. Between 1835 -1850 the land, then known as Rancho San Jose Y Sur Chiquito, was considered Mexican territory.

Chinese History

In 1851, a few Chinese families came over from Southern China in 30-foot junks (sailing ships). Shortly after, more Chinese joined them from the California gold fields. Together they established one of the first fishing camps in California. They harvested fish, squid, abalone, and sea urchins from the waters off shore. The Chinese stayed until about 1879.

In the 1980’s, Chinese artifacts were found under the floorboards of the Whaler’s Cabin.

Granite Quarry

In 1854, Colonel Jose Castro sold the land to Americans Abner Bassett and Joseph Emery to be used for quarrying granite. Some of the granite quarried here was used to build the U.S. Mint in San Francisco and the Navy shipyards at Mare Island in the SF Bay.

A view of Whaler’s Cove

Portuguese Whaling Industry 

In 1861, the first Portuguese whalers arrived in Point Lobos. Their community of about sixty people came seasonally (Dec – May) to hunt the Gray whales that migrated up and down the coast. According to docent Ed Clifton, the Portuguese would send a man up to the top of Whaler’s Knoll where they had a flag pole, and if he saw a whale, he’d run a flag up the pole. Then the whalers would jump into their boats and head out to sea. “As long as they were getting closer,” Mr. Clifton said, “the flag would stay up, but if they started to deviate, the flag would start to come down.”

With the invention of the kerosene lamp in the early 1880’s, the whale market began to dry up. After that, the Portuguese turned their complete attention to raising dairy cattle (already begun in the 1870’s). 

Tools of the Portuguese whaling trade
Whaler’s try pots used to melt blubber into oil

Coal Mining

According to Docent Ed Clifton, who is said to know so much “he’s forgotten more than most people know,” the coal artifacts are the most important exhibit in the museum. Here’s why: In 1872, coal was discovered in the coastal hills a few miles southeast of Point Lobos. Emery began mining the coal, “but,” Mr. Clifton said, “it was really nasty, it flooded, and Emery had all kinds of problems with it.” So Emery brought in a mining engineer that he knew of named Alexander Allan to help him manage the coal mine. Fast forward to 1878,  Emery decided to subdivide and sell the land of Point Lobos to a developer named William Stader. Stader named his future village Carmelito. “Fortunately for us,” Mr. Clifton continued, it was during one of the great recessions and there wasn’t a lot of money, and secondly, there was no bridge over the Carmel River, so it was kind of isolated.” Meanwhile, Allan and his wife Satie “fell in love with the place and they saw it for its beauty.” In 1898 Allan bought up all the subdivided lots, and when he died in the 1930’s, his heirs sold it to the state to be used as a reserve. “So that is why,” Mr. Clifton said, “out of all the exhibits we have here, this is one of the most important.” 

Note the chunk of coal on this signage.
Display about Alexander Allan, “The Preservationist Of Point Lobos.”

Abalone Harvesting

In 1897 a marine biologist named Gennosuke Kodani, traveled from his native village of Chiba, Japan to Point Lobos and discovered an abundance of abalone (their main predator, otters, had been nearly hunted to extinction).  Kodani sent for free-divers from his native village to harvest the abalone. They quickly discovered that their simple bathing suits, goggles, and caps would not keep them warm in the cold waters of the West Coast. So Allan had his father, who was a distributor of fishing equipment, send him hard-hat diving suits and air pumps. Then Kodani  teamed up with Allan to establish a cannery. Together they pioneered the first abalone industry along the California coast.

A hard-hat diving suit used by the Japanese whalers.

Much More to Learn

Other groups, including the U.S. military and Hollywood, made use of Point Lobos as well. To learn more, visit the Whaler’s Cabin in the reserve, or the park website at https://www.pointlobos.org/ .

An ocean view of Point Lobos.

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    Karen , This is an informative article with stunning photograph! I learned so much history that I didn’t know while on our hike. I look forward to going back again to Point Lobos. It’s a truly magical place. Thank you Tish

    • KarenGough KarenGough

      Thanks for your comment Tish! I’m so glad you liked the blog.

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