Welcome to Guadalupe Island! Situated in deep water off the continental shelf of North America, the history of Guadalupe Island is rich with Spanish and Portuguese explorers, pirates, gold and the Manila galleons, rapacious American and Russian sealers and fur traders. We love Guadalupe Island and hope that you will come to feel the same way. This volcanic island is estimated to be 8 million years old!!
The Cochimí native group were likely the first people to arrive at Guadalupe Island. With a strong maritime culture, they are believed to have arrived at Guadalupe Island over 11,000 years ago. In 1533 Fortun Ximenez was the first European to land in Baja California, although he did not make it past the present city of La Paz. Francisco de Ulloa made it as far north as Cedros Island in 1539, which got him close to Guadalupe Island, but not quite! Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo completed the reconnaissance of the west coast in 1542, followed by a second and more detailed survey by Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602.
The Manila Galleons
Vizcaino had been tasked by the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico City to locate safe harbours for the Spanish Manila galleons to use on their return voyage to Acapulco from Manila. His flagship was the San Diego, which one of the finest ports in California – and our meeting point for this trip – was named for. The Manila galleon trade actually began in 1565 and continued for over 250 years, carrying the riches of the new world, including gold and silver, to Asia, and bringing cargos of luxury goods such as spices and porcelain back to the Americas. The route was ingenious and took advantage of the “Pacific gyre,” running westerly south of the “horse latitudes” to Asia and then coming east in the mid-latitudes.
There is an interesting and sad reason they were called “horse latitudes.” These latitudes were known for calm and light winds that were very difficult to cross in the days of sail-driven ships. Sailors were sometimes driven to distraction and would throw everything possible over the side of their ships to try and lighten them, including the horses onboard.
Appreciating the History of Guadalupe Island
We suggest taking a couple of quiet minutes on your first morning at anchor at Guadalupe Island, when everything is still and a little misty, and imagine a fleet of Spanish galleons coasting southward just east of our anchorage at Guadalupe Island. Then imagine the English privateer Francis Drake (privateer is a polite name for a pirate!) lurking in the mist, ready to capture a galleon. Drake was believed to have been around Guadalupe Island in 1579, and was known to have captured at least one galleon further south!
The Birth of the Otter Pelt Trade
Unfortunately, Captain James Cook spoiled everything and changed the course of the history of Guadalupe Island, as well as much of the west coast. He was a brilliant explorer and captain, and we intend to honour him by naming our next ship the Nautilus Endeavour. He and his crew took sea otter (Enhydra Lutris) pelts on trade in Alaska on his third and final voyage. They used the pelts as blankets, to wipe stuff down and even to clean their feet with! However, when the ships reached Canton (after Cook’s death), the Chinese traders paid up to a staggering $120 per pelt. In 1872 dollars!! A stampede was created when an account of the voyage was published, with Russian sealers sweeping across the Aleutians, down past Alaska and the west coast as far as Guadalupe Island. American fur traders swept up the other way as far as Alaska. The rush was on and the pinnipeds were doomed.
I hope you enjoyed this short history of Guadalupe Island, and remember: dive safe! Be sure to check out part two in this series on the animals of Guadalupe Island.
Painting by Cornelis Verbeeck, circa 1618