Coronado Islands An Enigma

History of the Coronado Islands

Easily spotted on a clear day from the tip of Point Loma, the Coronado Islands (Islas Coronados) are only 15 miles away … a familiar sight to local residents, though many tourists have probably never heard of them.

coronado islands hiking

Ahhh … so close, but so far. The Coronado Islands actually belong to Mexico and are a part of the municipality of Tijuana, State of Baja California Norte. From land, it is difficult to make out the four infertile islands that are mainly uninhabited except for a small military detachment. The North Coronado Islands has no bay, but boats can anchor on a jetty on the eastern side. It is very hard to land on Pilón de Azúcar (Pile of Sugar). It has little vegetation, but a flock of birds rests there. Central Coronado has a rocky peak with a heap of cactus and scrubs near the summit and South Coronado has the only bay on the islands, called Puerto Cueva (Cave Port), as well as a lighthouse on each extreme.

coronado islands

Their recorded history reaches back to September, 1542, when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo first described them as islas desiertas (desert islands). Sixty years later, in 1602, Sebastián Vizcaíno christened them Los Cuatro Coronados (the four crowned ones) to honor four martyrs.

coronado islands shackSouth Coronado Island, two-miles long and a half-mile wide, is the largest of the chain and was the focus of many tales and myths swirling around the area. Pirates did stop by, and one old legend has it that a pirate named Jose Arvaez used the bay, later called Pirates’ Cove and Smugglers’ Cove, as a base of operations. Allegedly he killed the crew of a British ship, the “Chelsea,” but he and his men were caught when they returned to their cove and were hanged from the yardarm of their own schooner.

Nearly a century and a half later, the tale became the plot for a musical, “Pirates of Point Loma” by Welton Jones and Markuz Rodriguez. However, on further investigation, it was discovered in the 1950s, maritime historian John Lyman, while searching the 19th-century ships’ registers, was unable to find the Chelsea or the Grendo. Moreover, contemporary journals from the 1850s didn’t mention either Arvaez or Bolter, which led him to declare that “Pirates of Point Loma” was a tall tale about tall ships and was a myth … a fitting preamble to the rich stories that make up the history of these fabled Coronado Islands.

As World War II was winding down in 1945, sportfishing was just finding it’s footing in San Diego. In addition to the local half-day trips to the kelp beds, the Coronado Islands, teeming with sea life, became a popular fishing hole.

yellowtail derbyThe fledging sportfishing industry, searching for a way to promote those Coronado trips, welcomed the offer by the San Diego Junior Chamber of Commerce to promote and manage an Annual Yellowtail Derby.

The San Diego Jaycees, as they became known, had roots reaching back to the late 1920s and had incorporated in 1934 in order to provide a link between its membership of 18- to 35-year-old businessmen and the community business establishment.

derby history
Miss Yellowtail Derby 1962 Sharon Wetzel (photo courtesy of San Diego Historical Society)

San Diego’s first Yellowtail Derby was held in 1946 and they continued until 1973. The six-month event – March to September with qualifying periods and finals – was popular and drew anglers from throughout the USA eager to pit their fishing skills against the hard-fighting yellowtail during its heyday. As many as 100,000 anglers competed for cash prizes as well as for new cars, travel trailers, fishing trips and fishing tackle, more than likely making the event one of the largest fishing contests of the era.

The Coronado Islands offer rugged scenery and spectacular wildlife where defying man and sheltering nature is the norm. With a multi-national cast of characters including villains and eccentrics – Russian hunters, Chinese immigrants, Japanese divers, American rum runners, assorted gamblers, a trigger-happy U.S. lieutenant and what must be Mexico’s smallest naval detachment – all sharing a stage with pelagic and resident fish, dolphins, whales, elephant seals, brown pelicans, cormorants, oyster catchers and boobies.

Reports of unworldly, eerie sensations have been frequent. More than a century ago in a September 1869 issue, the San Diego Union reported a mirage causing the Coronado Islands to appear as giant fans, the letter “V” and castles. And again in 1886, reports told of flames flickering over the southernmost island – perhaps long forgotten shipwrecked mariners signaling for help?

If the Coronado Islands are haunted, perhaps it is by the ghosts of the 10 Chinese immigrants who were marooned there by smugglers in 1911; or maybe it is haunted by the spirits of the otters and seals slaughtered by Russian and American hunters in the mid-19th century.

The hunters killed off their quarry, just as flotillas of Chinese and Japanese fishermen later depleted the islands’ abalone beds. History here is rich in commercial failure, as scheme after scheme – a brownstone quarry, a copper mine, a gold mine – fell victim to unforgiving geography. All four islands boast sheer cliffs, knife-edge ridge lines and not one drop of fresh water.

During Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s, the cove, Puerto Cueva on the northeast side of South Island was used as a rendezvous spot for alcohol smugglers. Radar hadn’t yet been introduced and as foggy nights were common, the large number of boats frequently resulted in collisions.

Coronado Islands HotelMexico’s bars and casinos were flourishing in Rosarito Beach and Ensenada. Gambling speculators Mariano Escobedo, builder of Tijuana’s jai alai fronton, and Fred Hamilton, a San Diego lumber merchant, even developed an elaborate two-story gambling casino and hotel on the rocky cliffs of the South Coronado Island.

Consisting of 60 rooms, some bungalows, restaurant, cabaret and a casino, the main building looked stunning, with walls of varying height, painted blue. Like the Agua Caliente Casino, the interior decoration was sumptuous, with carpeted floor and large mirrors, but the paintings on the walls were the focal point of the cabaret with its stunning polished wood bar. At the top of the second floor there was a large terrace, almost completely surrounded by a railing; the guests who were seated around tables could enjoy a panoramic view of the coast – from the village of Rosarito to Point Loma in San Diego while sipping their boot-legged hooch.

There was even a wooden skiff for fishing and a glass bottom boat available to observe marine life in the vicinity of the island. When completely finished, construction was rumored to be US $200,000, a huge sum in that Depression era.

Opening for business in the summer of 1933, and, despite the size of the investment, the hotel did not flourish. All supplies, including fresh water, had to be brought from the mainland. Then the repeal of Prohibition on December 5, 1933 in the U.S. removed one of its key components: American tourists. The next year, 1934, Mexico banned casino gambling; the Coronado Islands Yacht Club closed its doors that December.

coronado islands casinoAbandoned and forlorn, years later it housed soldiers based on the rocky island who had their water and provisions shipped out to them. Today, only the stone foundation remains though the name Smugglers Cove, and more rarely Casino Cove, are noted on maps of the region.

An interesting chapter of the islands’ history is one of the most bizarre naval stories occurring off San Diego’s coast. On July 28, 1943, a U.S. Navy lieutenant ordered his minesweeper to use the Coronado Islands for target practice. By the time the PC-815’s third shell slammed into South Island – the chain’s only inhabited island – the Mexican government was angrily protesting to its U.S. allies.

coronado historyThe lieutenant lost his command.  “Consider this officer lacking in the essential qualities of judgment, leadership and cooperation,” read the official reprimand. That officer was L. Ron Hubbard, the future science fiction writer and founder of Scientology.

Today, along with fishermen, the Coronados are visited regularly by divers and snorkelers who consider them among the best dive locations on the West Coast with conditions similar to the Caribbean. The nearby deep ocean currents regularly wash the islands with clear blue water creating visibility often exceeding 80-feet.

Pukey Point on the north end of North Coronado has rough currents and is for more experienced divers. Easier are the Lobster Shack on the east side, and McDonalds, an arch at the south end of North Coronado.

The islands are once again used by smugglers – human traffickers who occasionally hide immigrants there to avoid being discovered by the Coast Guard; or when the weather is too bad to continue, similar to the Chinese situation of a century ago, the would-be illegal aliens are sometimes left on the island for days.

bird sancutaryThe Coronado Islands are actually a Mexican wildlife refuge, off limits for visitors without special permits. Animals thrive there. There are colonies of gulls, pelicans, petrels and sea ducks, and the largest known colony of the rare Xantus’s Murrelet, the most southern living of the auk species of bird, classified as “vulnerable.”

Ten species of reptiles and amphibians are also found in the islands, as well as two types of land mammals, rabbits and mice. Sea mammals are plentiful and it is not uncommon to see groups of sea lions, seals, sea otters and elephant seals.

yellowtail derby

In 2008, Stephen P. Cushman, Chairman of San Diego’s Board of Port Commissioners at the time, urged John Campbell to resurrect the Yellowtail Derby.

derby queenCampbell’s extensive experience in the fishing community made him an ideal candidate to revive the tradition of the derby. His background included being an IGFA Representative for California for seven years, Sales Manager for South Coast Sportfishing Magazine, and originator of the fishing section of The Log Newspaper.

derby winner

So, in September 2009, under Campbell’s management and with Cushman’s support, the International Yellowtail Derby was reborn and was met with unqualified success. The first annual International Yellowtail Derby had a fishing window that that was open for eight days only. Thirty anglers participated in the first one; winner of the event was Sonja Steiner.

By 2015, the format had evolved. Anglers now had up to 36 fishing days to fish, from May 2 to June 7. The 90 anglers who participated could choose one day or all of the 36 days to fish, so they had an equal chance to win a prize for the largest yellowtail, white sea bass and halibut. The 2015 big winner was “Rockcod Rick” Maxa, co-host of the Let’s Talk Hook-up 1090 Show and partner in the Fisherman’s Landing Tackle Shop.

The dates for next year’s event are April 30 to June 4, fishing; and June 5, awards.

fishing tournamentOver the years, many International Game Fish Records have been awarded for fish caught around the Coronados and there are a handful that are still listed in the IGFA World Record book.

Both seasoned and beginning anglers have been drawn to the islands and its wealth of fishing opportunities.

don shirley blackman coronado islands halibut fishing

Long before the Yellowtail Fishing Derby in 1946, fishermen were finding their way to these islands. Many of these anglers came away with trophy fish, including Don and Shirley Blackman, who many years later, delighted in heading for South Island on Friday nights to make a weekend of anchoring in the lee and fishing for halibut before the season heated up in the spring. At one point, Shirley had set six International Game Fish Association line-class world records for a mix of California halibut and tuna catches. She held the IGFA line-class world records for a 38-pound, 8-ounce California halibut on 6-pound test line and a 41-pound halibut on 16-pound test line; both were caught off the Islands.

Much of the Coronado Islands past remains an enigma. The islands beckon to wildlife, divers and anglers alike, hinting of the many adventures of the past while offering the option to recreate an old memory or create a new adventure.

That Baja Guy-Gary Graham
That Baja Guy-Gary Graham, the BD Outdoors Baja Editor, has more than five decades fishing experience off of Southern California and the Baja Peninsula. From light tackle and fly up to offshore marlin fishing, Gary has experienced all facets of this fishery. He's set several fly-fishing world record...