Adventures in Catalina Island: swimming with hypothermia, mountain biking to remote coves, kayaking and swimming with sharks
My wife – Palas – and I decided to escape the heat of Pasadena by going to Catalina Island for the weekend and enjoy the cooler temperatures. Not long after we arrived, I was swimming in the crystal clear waters. Descanso beach, were I started, was disappointingly laud with a deejay playing all sort of old-fashioned disco music. So I swam fast to get away from that and get into the wild side of the island. I kept swimming along the coast, motivated by seeing what was around the next corner, if a cove, a beach, or a view of the coastline. Despite the water being cold, I kept going. Clear waters also inspire more confidence, so I continued swimming. Then there were some rock features I really wanted to see from up close and peek around them to see the coastline so I made my way towards them. The view of the coastline from that point was mesmerizing. It was also a good point to turn around.
Onset of hypothermia This was a beautiful swim but no challenge for me. I can swim for hours on end in the Mediterranean in the summer and for shorter period of times even in the winter with no wetsuit; I have swum 20km around Key West with no wetsuit, because waters are much warmer there. But for longer and colder swims – like when I did 42 miles in 4 days in 4 Arizona lakes – I prefer to wear a wetsuit because I don’t have much body fat and I easily get cold. This time I had no wetsuit but I wasn’t concerned, as I didn’t go for too long. It would have been slightly over an hour in the end.
On the way back though, I started feeling seriously cold. As I was swimming, I studied the coast for potential exit points, just in case of an emergency. I normally swim along the coast for this reason when I go alone, but I have never had to use any such exit point. I was thinking how well I felt, despite being cold. Then, an instant later, I was swimming towards shore. It was an instinctive decision. When I exited the water and I crouched for warmth, I realized my heart was pounding to nearly maximum beats. I decided to wait a few minutes for the heart rate to regularize but it wouldn’t. I accepted I had to go back in with a higher-than-normal heart rate. I did several squats trying to warm up and then I jumped back in. As soon as I got in, I immediately felt I couldn’t go for long so I swam towards a boat straight in front of me to ask for help. But as I made my way out, I could see the wharf I swam past, around the cove, and few “emergency” beaches in between. Since I warmed up a little bit, I decided to keep swimming instead. When I went past the beaches on the way back, I felt so well I didn’t need to stop and kept moving towards the wharf, which I also thought I wouldn’t use. It would have been so silly to use, I was really not far from Descanso beach. But as I went past I felt there was no other option but to exit the water. In fact my strokes started to feel clumsy and I also couldn’t keep the head down in the water while swimming crawl.
As I climbed the stairs of the wharf I started shivering like never before. I could barely walk. I lost control of my mouth muscles to the point that I couldn’t even properly close my mouth and I had the strange feeling of being toothless. Trying to warm up I crouched first, then I tried with some drills like planks and squats but nothing would work. Then I saw a shore boat, one of those that go pick up people from anchored luxury yachts and take them to shore. I asked for rescue. I couldn’t believe I was actually doing that. How could I end so miserably such an adventure? But I was shivering so badly that I couldn’t even deal with the thought of jumping back in the water. So I shouted to the guys on the shore boat: - Hey guys! Are you going to shore? Can I get e lift? - What? – They shouted back - Can I get lift to shore, please? - Say that again? - Come on! I’m clearly in distress, don’t you see I’m asking for help? - I thought of saying. But instead I said nothing and I decided to jump in the water, again, and swim towards them to get a lift.
As I got in the water, I felt that again something was seriously wrong. How was I going to be able to make it even just to the boat, if I was shivering so badly outside the water? But surely they wouldn’t let me drawn, would they? As I approached the boat, I was able to see around the cove, the next cove was Descanso beach. Perhaps I could still make it without asking for help. I was not able to get a precise idea of how close the beach was, but there were several other boats in between, that I could use as support if needed be. I went strong. It was me and the ocean. Then, at approximately half way between two boats I felt my strength vanishing and I felt lightheaded. I could have fainted any time now. I turned around to see if the guys from the shore boat got some remorse and were trying to rescue me. I couldn’t see them. At the same time, the boat ahead was too far and I was too weak to shout for help. I also had difficulties breathing and keeping my head down in the water. In a desperate attempt to keep moving, I switched to breaststroke, keeping my head out. This stroke wasn’t intense enough to keep me warm but it helped me to advance a few more yards and see behind the bluff and realize that I could give a final sprint to the beach. It was all or nothing. There was no intermediate exit point this time. I gave it all and I made it out, “safely”. When Palas saw me, she said my lips were purple, a clear sign of the onset of severe hypothermia.
Mountain biking around the island The following day we set out to cycle from Avalon to the opposite end of the island. On the way there, we followed airport road, which goes on top of a ridge facing the east coast on one side and the inner island on the other side. The views from the ridge were amazing. Then we descended to Little Harbor on the opposite coast and went swimming in little frequented coves. It was paradisiac. After reaching Two Harbors, we kept going on the coastal road. What amazed me is that coastal dirt road felt so much like how the roads used to be seventy years ago in the part of South of Italy where I am from, Gargano. It was much like seeing in real life what I had imagined after the accounts of my dad. I couldn’t stop; I had to see it all. So I raced ahead going uphill, downhill and then up and down again to reach Parsons’ landing, where the mountain biking trail finishes. At the beach, I saw some bikers who were setting up camp for the night. It was already 7pm and we had to ride all the way back. At first I envied the bikers as they were about to have a nice dinner and then enjoy the comfort of the tent but then I though – how boring! So I went back on the trail to reach Palas, who had started her way back.
We didn’t have long before it got dark. Glad I put our headlamps in my backpack, just in case. On the way back, we passed by some amazing coves, which we could distinctively see under the moonlight. We stopped a few times to contemplate the beauty. Then the sky got covered and a light rain started. But the noise of the wave crushing against the cliffs, and the views of rugged landscape were awe-inspiring. To close the loop, we took Middle Ranch Road.
The silence and peace you get in this Canyon, crossing the middle of the island at night is priceless. What is pricy though is the Catalina Conservancy permit to access this area by bike. Although you are not supposed to ride at night we were at least getting value for money. When we got back to Avalon, at about 1am, we still needed to get quarters for the campsite showers. The only place where to get quarters at that time are nightclubs. So I entered in the first nightclub we passed by. The difference from the peace of the night in the mountains to the loud music and the pressure of people pushing on you in a club is devastating. We managed to escape after attracting the curiosity of a few and we finally made it back to camp after 75 miles bike ride, about 9000’ elevation gain, and with some wild swims in between.
Kayaking and swimming with sharks Next day we went out kayaking. We started in Avalon and went north along the eastern side of Catalina. The aim was reaching a remote cove with no people. It’s a challenge because most coves close to Avalon are full of yachts and boats of all kinds. It takes quite a bit of paddling before reaching some place where you can feel far form civilization. When we found our cove, we approached the shore. As we were nearing the beach we realized there were lots of rocks under. Then the rocks were moving, weird. Actually, the shades we thought were rocks were sharks instead! We cautiously made our way out of the kayak. The cove was really beautiful and felt really pristine.
After having enjoyed the beach – and having forgot about the sharks – we decided to go for a swim. I swiftly entered the water. Palas shouted at me, warning me of the presence of sharks. Alack – it was too late as I was completely surrounded by them. Good news is that leopard sharks are innocuous to humans, yet you never know. So I swam away from shore. It took me a while to convince Palas to get in. The cove seen from the water was really beautiful. But this time we decided to exit the water before I got another hypothermia. Problem was that the shore was full of sharks, even more than before. In the end, we became unexpectedly confident with sharks and we enjoyed swimming around them and seeing them from up close. There must have been more then twenty sharks, swimming peacefully in this sub-tropical paradise, unaware of the urban chaos that lies not too far off from them, on the mainland.