From the Archives: Arthur Conan Doyle boosts Catalina

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Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series of reprints of historic Catalina Islander articles. It has been edited. Originally published January 16, 1924.

Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series of reprints of historic Catalina Islander articles. It has been edited. Originally published January 16, 1924.

“What I think of America Now” is the title of an article written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer of the Sherlock Holmes stories, after his visit to Catalina Island. The article appears in the January issue of the Metropolitan Magazine. Mr. Doyle does not like those who chew gum, and has his reasons for saying “Venus would look vulgar if she chewed.” But, how could Venus chew anything? Why, she couldn’t take the wrapper off a package of gum! She would have to chew the wrapper and the wax. Other than the remarks about “gum,” Mr. Doyle has written a splendid description of his visit to Catalina:

“Catalina Island lies twenty-five miles from the mainland. It was a fine, though cloudy day, the ocean was smooth and the passage very pleasant as we were allowed the privilege of the Captain’s bridge. The children were delighted to see the fins of numerous ‘sharks’ so-called. Per sonally I thought they were really large dogfish, which are the jackals of the ocean. A number of pelicans flew near the ship and a few flying fish skimmed over the gentle Pacific heave.

“There is a good hotel, the St. Catherine, at Avalon, which is the little town at which one lands. The whole place belongs to Mr. Wrigley.”

“Catalina Island has a general resemblance to Capri, though less precipitous. It rises at its highest to two thousand feet, and it is the home of thousands of wild goats which are rounded up from time to time. The length of the Island is fifteen miles, and the breadth about eight. It has been cleverly exploited as a pleasure resort, and its glass -bottomed boats are famous the world over. They are good sized steamers and the people sit in rows, their backs to the ocean, staring down into the glass tanks, consuming Mr. Wrigley’s products while they admire, through the crystal water, the wonders of the deep. It is certainly very beautiful—the huge fronds in slow, rhythmical motion, the deep blues and greens where the vegetation opens out, the unconscious fish who go about their lawful occasions, with no regard at all to the boat above them. It is a huge natural aquarium and I have seen nothing like it. None of the fish was large—nothing over five or six pounds; but some were very brilliant, especially the golden perch of a beautiful orange red. The striped rock bass was the most numerous, and we caught glimpses far below us of strange sea slugs and sea cucumbers crawling on a sandy bottom. Later, we turned outbound, and watched a great colony of sea lions which lay basking on the rocks, some of them barking at us as we passed. Finally, we would up out experiences by an amazing exhibition of diving by a white man named Adargo, who was an Islander, and may from his swarthy appearance have had some of the great Spanish blood in him. He swam down forty feet—fifty-six is his record—and a world record, I believe, and there gathered some shells for us, finally lying on his back at the bottom, with his mouth open, gazing up at us. He can keep under water for three minutes. The shells were ornamental abalones, and we were glad to bring a couple away with us as a remembrance of a remarkable experience.

“In the evening, we set forth in a launch with a powerful searchlight in order to attract flying fish. We cruised close to the shore as the creatures avoid their larger enemies by coming to the shallows. It was really a wonderful spectacle unlike any that we have seen in our travels. The brilliant beam of light lit up the craggy, dim colored base of the cliffs, while the stretch of sea between was broken continually by the shining streaks of the flying fish. The only simile which would convey the impression would be to imagine a deep blue tropical sky crisscrossed by shooting stars, each of which came to an end in a little silvery explosion. It was an excursion which none of us would forget. We were amused by the pattern of the guide who has to explain matters to the tourists. Such people are usually a nuisance, but this particular one had a wit of his own. His last words were ‘If you liked the excursion please tell your friends, but if you didn’t like it then keep quiet about it.’

“Next morning, we had a long boating excursion down the coast of the Island to a point where it narrows to an isthmus, across which we walked. Some white-headed fish eagles flew over the boat and some wild goats were seen in the distance, but otherwise there was no great sign of life. Round the hotel in the morning we had seen some alleged humming birds, tiny creatures, but more drab in color than I had expected. The boys rummaged everywhere for a rattlesnake, but to our relief they failed to find one. I told them [an] old story to point my moral that there were two sides to a snake hunt. It had already been pointed out at the Bronx gardens in New York where our particular friend, the keeper of the snakes, had been bitten by a rattler. He would certainly have died had it not been that by a perfect miracle on a visit a Brazilian doctor who had some rattlesnake serum among his luggage. A few injections of this save the man’s life.

“Our jaunt down the coast left us with vague remembrance of deep blue sea, of cinnamon and melon cliffs, of scrub oak vegetation, with occasional gum-trees, of lime stone caves with the sea foaming into them, and of little coves with sandy beaches at the mouth of steep wooded valleys. In one of these clearings there was recently found an Indian burial ground with two hundred and fifty skeletons, though how they could have lived on this mountainous island is hard to understand. They must have been fugitives from the mainland. At the isthmus, we saw sinister old Chinese junk, anchored there as a curiosity. She was built, it was said, in 1530 and so solidly that she was still seaworthy. In size, she seemed about the same tonage as Columbus’ ship of a generation before. Her more recent history was entirely of piracy, slavery, mutiny; she was finally used as a floating prison—a most disreputable bit of ocean flotsam.

“So, ended our adventures at Catalina, save that we went fishing upon the last morning, with no success save for one very large mackerel. We were invited into the Tuna Club, however, where the trophies are kept, and there we were shown what we might have got had we been more fortunate or more skillful. Enormous swordfish taken on a thin line and played often for ten hours, tuna fish of three hundred pounds which averages an hour in the taking, a huge deep sea bass of three hundred and fifty pounds, long snouty barracuda, yellowtail, rock cod, ribbon fish, dolphins (reminiscent of old Greek coins), ghost fish, sun fish (looking as though they had been cut in two and the front end had never got over the wonder of it), sucker fish, pilot fish—every kind of queer fish adorn the walls of the angler’s paradise, which is presided over by an ancient picture of Izaak Walton who would certainly have thought he had a nightmare had he really seen the horrible un-English creatures around him.

“I have mentioned that an Indian graveyard was found upon the Island. I had an opportunity of studying the photographs of the skeletons.

“One of them was a man seven feet in height, so they were clearly a very different race from those old savages whose stocky figures and gorilla-like skulls were being uncovered at that very moment at Santa Barbara, where an old mound was explored. The Catalina skeletons were all found with their knees drawn up to their chins, which was, if I remember rightly, the attitude of all British savages of the Neolithic period. Perhaps the bent knees has always been the symbol of prayer, and this attitude was universally adopted in early days as a propitiation of the gods. Each skeleton had an abalone shell with it, in which were deposited some of its earthly treasures, sordid and mean, but the principle the same as great King Tut with his throne and chariot.”

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