Smugglers, Shipwrecks and Skulls – Oh My!

Posted:  January 30, 2022
👁 1573   44

“Clearly I dressed for the occasion,” I said as I pulled my shirt logo out to show our friends. Vitamin Sea is one of my favorite designs available in our online merch store and ironically matched the name of the 35’ Defender we were aboard at the time. But wait, a powerboat? Sacrebleu! How could this be? Our friend Mitch (QM travels) has been working as a captain for Freedom Boat Club, teaching their members how to operate the vessels in their fleet. Although sailing has a hold over our hearts when we were presented with the opportunity to take one of the club boats out to the island for the day with our friends, we were quick to ditch our projects and tag along. 

With the little powerboat, the opportunities were seemingly endless, inspiring our idea to explore Painted Cave – an enormous sea cave that goes deep into the belly of the Island. Because there is no real anchorage at the cave, we have never brought Avocet there for more than a few hours, and unfortunately, it was always during high tide (meaning low-to-no cave access). Our course was set and Captain Mitch drove us carefully through the swell, occasionally rattling the passengers when a big roller would come through. I was all smiles as the rollercoaster-like experience reminded me of fishing with my dad as a kid on Monterey Bay, which was always a rough and wild ride. 

Leaving the harbor – so green!

Nearly halfway to Painted Cave our crew reassessed the impending swell and surrendered our scheduled plans to Mother Nature. Painted Cave was not in the cards for this excursion, but we still had an entire island to find a new place to lay a hook. Considering the south side of the island was more protected from the swell, we decided to check out Smugglers Cove; a place we have never been able to comfortably anchor at on Avocet, let alone go ashore. 

Smugglers Cove is located to the south of the island’s easternmost point, San Pedro Point. The anchorage provides good holding in northwesterly winds, and despite our personal experiences, it remains a favorite for visiting boats during the summer and fall months. Despite its good anchor grounds, going to shore is particularly difficult due to the common presence of an inside swell. Between Captain Mitch and Captain Q, the little boat was anchored easily and we soon took to the water, using our new Zen Monkey Paddle Boards to get to shore. 

Since there were five of us and three paddleboards, Chris paddled while I sat on the front of one, doing my absolute best not to get completely soaked. We carefully waited for the set to roll through before making our landing attempt that was executed a lot better than some of our past dinghy landings – these paddleboards are a game changer! Mitch, Quincey, and our friend Mandy followed closely behind, pulling their boards up the shoreline besides ours before we broke in our land legs. 

The rocky shoreline was speckled with shells, fossils, and whole bones, ultimately leading me to the motherload: A skull, perched beautifully atop a collection of bird, pinniped, and small mammal bones. This skull was very unusual for the island, as it was nearly triple the size of the island’s largest mammal, the island fox. After gentle analysis and observation, it appeared to be a cow skull – but unlike any cow skull I have ever seen before. We took photos then left the skull behind, despite how badly I wanted to take it home. I have a personal policy where I don’t take bones from the island (despite the abundance) out of respect for the dead, the national park rules, and of course my strong beliefs of “leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photos.”

Our group continued on our march up the hillside, wandering through the olive orchard that was planted under the direction of early Santa Cruz Island owner/resident Justinian Caire in the 1880s. Although it is noted that Caire planted the trees in an effort to maximize the island’s resources, others say it was to make his Italian wife feel more at home. The olives were primarily used for pickling and harvested all the way until 1922, nearly 25 years after Caire’s death. Fortunately for us history enthusiasts, the trees still stand as a reminder of the island’s rich ranching history and continue to inspire people like me to dig deeper into the past. 

The sun melted onto our skin as we followed the island lilies up the trail. We reached a plateau that provided a sublime panoramic view of the island and sea. The sound of silence was both deafening and serene, somehow echoing across the landscape without producing a single sound at all. The five of us stood together, admiring the peace, before reluctantly making our descent. 

Photo: National Park Service

Back on the shoreline, Chris and I decided to break away from the others to investigate a large pile of weathered wood. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were looking at the “bones” of a boat! The crossbeams jetted out of the rocky shoreline like a rib cage, with bronze bolts, mounts, conduit, and other machinery scattered around the surrounding area. We carefully climbed aboard to see if there was any defining clue as to what vessel we were looking at, but unfortunately, there were no true tells and we realized we would have to research it later. We gathered as many photos and videos as we could to help us in our investigation before waving the remnants goodbye and rejoining our friends on the boat. 

Chris was the first to make a splash off the top of the boat, shortly followed by everyone but myself. Although the crystal clear sea looked inviting, it was a brisque 51 degrees, and I have an irrational issue with my face hitting the water (like diving) so I stayed dry. While everyone relaxed and enjoyed mother earth’s playground, we witnessed something so horrific as I type this out, nearly weeks after the fact. Two park rangers rode down the trail in a 4×4 and quickly jumped out to walk the shoreline. They immediately gathered around the bone pile and began throwing the remains across the shoreline in an attempt to dismantle the man-made structure. Although the bones being scattered apart is better for the ecosystem, the way they were throwing the bones and laughing did not sit well with me. To my horror, I watched one of the women pick up the beautiful intact skull that I had been admiring hours prior, and throw it across the beach where it bounced then shattered. My soul was as crushed as the skull was, and I had notepad the encounter to discuss with the park service later. 

The ride home was relatively quiet as we were all tired from our day’s adventure. I began drafting emails to the historical society and national park service, to hunt down the answers to my questions. When I got a response back, they were very apologetic about the incident with the skull and agreed it was unusual and off-putting, especially since the skull belonged to none other than the endangered Santa Cruz Island Horse… a species that has not called the island home since 1998. 

The Skull

When people think of ranching on Santa Cruz Island,  many people think of the famous sheep and cattle that were cared for there. What few people know is that there were also Spanish horses that accompanied the ranchers in the 1800s to herd cattle and sheep across the 60,000 acres of land. These horses were strong and used for everything from herding to plowing and even pulling buggies for the few families that lived on the island.

Ranching on Santa Cruz Island was discontinued in the 1980s, and much like the sheep and bore, the horses were left to fend for themselves until the 1990s when the island was sold and came under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. It was at this time that the horses came to the attention of Dr. Karen Blumenshine of the Santa Barbara Equine Practice who felt the horses warranted scientific study and conservation. 

Despite many animal activist groups fighting for the horses to remain on the island, the last of the herd, referred to as the “Heritage Herd” by Blumenshine, was removed from the island in 1999 and placed into the care of Dianne Nelson of the Wild Horse Sanctuary (WHS). Horses from this foundation herd have been adopted by Christina Nooner, the founder of the non-profit Sunshine Sanctuary for Kids and Horses in Tehama County’s Los Molinos. Like Drs. Blumenshine, Nooner recognized something special in the island horses. The Livestock Conservancy estimates the world population of this unique and gentle breed to have grown from the original 15 in 1999, to roughly 60 today. 

The Shipwreck

Although the skull was easier for my sources to ID and provide history on, it took a lot of internet digging to uncover the history of the shipwreck. Islapedia, the Channel Island’s historical archive, has a list of wrecks around the island but they are not always as detailed or definitive as needed. After cross-checking, verifying, and chatting back and forth with my sources the ship was positively ID’d as the USS Reaper. 

Reaper [U.S.S. Reaper] (#MSO-467) (1954-1980s), was the second ship to be named Reaper by the Navy. The 172-foot wood-hulled diesel-powered minesweeper out of Long Beach had been built in Wilmington, California in 1952 and launched in 1954. After shakedown, Reaper set course for the western Pacific Ocean in May of 1956. 

She participated in training exercises in Taiwan with the Republic of China and helped to search for a P4M aircraft shot down by Communist China. Exercises from Japan to Alaska even to Taiwan before returning to Long Beach 22 June 1963. She remained active with the U.S. Pacific Fleet in 1964 and 1965. Reaper deployed for the final time to the Western Pacific in the fall of 1969; which is when she came under mortar fire while anchored near Vung Tau, Vietnam. In February, Reaper provided covering fire for her boarding team sent to check out a grounded and abandoned small coastal freighter. Reaper remained active with the U.S. Seventh Fleet until 2 May 1970 when she returned to the U.S. West Coast. Reaper was stricken from the Navy list 28 February 1975 and disposed of by Navy sale 1 November 1976. So… how did she end up on the rocky shoreline of Smugglers Cove?

When Reaper was sold for salvage, she was towed to Scorpion Harbor off the east end of Santa Cruz Island in the early 1980s. The morning after her arrival, island resident William Petersen (who lived at Scorpion Ranch, tending to 5,000 sheep) caught two couples stealing metals off the ship, which he made them return. Once reattached to her mooring, Reaper parted from her stainless steel cable and was found floating off Anacapa Island by the Coast Guard. They towed her into Port Hueneme and shortly thereafter towed her out to Smugglers Cove where they moored her, pending burning her at sea. Once more Reaper proved she was a force to reckon with and parted from her mooring line, washing ashore at Smugglers Cove. Petersen, who was surely tired of this ship’s shenanigans, salvaged her metals for ranching operations then burned her where she laid. This was the second of three minesweepers that ended up on the east end of Santa Cruz Island.

I was a bit skeptical when the park service notified me this was the Reaper since the wreck had not been shown in any photos taken within the past decade or so. After some back and forth collaboration and research, the park service and I concluded the ship was likely buried and had just recently emerged from beneath her rocky grave – a somewhat chilling thought.

The island never ceases to amaze us and continues to unveil more of her not-so-hidden history every time we step foot ashore. Although our trip to the island was the shortest we have ever experienced, there is something to be said about the amount of knowledge we gained from a single day. Children are born as natural scientists, curious about the world around them, and as they grow they tend to stop wondering and accept things as they are without further questioning. I urge you to reignite this inquisitive nature and dig deeper to learn about the world that we all call home. I promise you will be thrilled with what you learn. 

Huge thank you to Freedom Boat Club, Captain M+Q, Zen Monkey Paddle Boards, the Channel Islands Historical Society, the National Park Service, and of course Mandy for joining us on this adventure 🙂 



You May Also Like…

Birthday Celebrations, Galore!

Birthday Celebrations, Galore!

Welcome Home Oh, thank you Jack Daniel's Old Number Seven… Garrett's voice floated throughout the bar as he sang his...

A Little More Mazatlan

A Little More Mazatlan

In my opinion, there’s nothing quite like waking up slow with the sunrise, easing into the day with a warm cup of...


  1. Nick Lyon

    Lovely story and I can only imagine what the bones of that wreckage looked like at first glance.

    • SV Avocet

      Hey Nick! Thanks for reading. It was a really neat discovery, if only we knew what it was when we first discovered her!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *