At 20:00 hours (aka 10pm) on July 15, photographer and filmmaker Suzanne Mejean and I climbed aboard the 65-foot sport fishing boat “Fury” for a twenty-two hour fishing expedition and an unannounced draw-in focused on San Clemente Island Naval Weapons Testing Range. We didn’t bring fishing gear; instead, we brought watercolors, brushes, pencils, paper, a pinhole camera, digital cameras, a paper navigation chart, some snacks, drinking water, and Dramamine. Also on board were fifteen amateur fishing buffs, mostly men, a couple women, and two young boys with their parents, out on the water for a weekend fishing adventure. There were also five boat crew members, experts able to help guide poles and lines when the big ones caught (which they did – four yellowtail and a halibut, along with dozens of smaller fish). For the purposes of Incendiary Traces, these crew members became a resource of experts who could tell us about their experiences on the waters surrounding San Clemente Island. They have been taking boats out there to fish five days a week, overnight, for years, and in the boat captain’s case since the 1970s.
Artists are interested in perspectives -- Incendiary Traces ventured out on the Fury to have a look at the Naval Weapons Testing Range, which is rarely visible from the mainland, and to sketch the island landscape which is entirely closed to the public. The draw-in recalls an historical tradition of first-hand witnessing and visual recording of the Pacific that goes back to 18th century British painter William Hodges and beyond. (See The Naval Gaze: (Sub)tropical Fantasies and Imperial Pacific Landscapes for an informal history.) But we got a lot more than that listening to the first-hand experiences of this Orange County boating community.
San Clemente Island is the southernmost in the California Channel Islands, about 50 miles off the coast of Orange County. Fishing boats, both commercial and amateur, head to these waters for some of the best fishing in the area. They share the waters with kayers, surfers, cruise liners, international cargo ships, the U.S. Navy and its allies, including the British Special Forces, Japanese, and Israeli Defense forces. San Clemente Island is the only U.S. Navy ship-to-shore weapons testing range in the world. Battleships can be twenty deep when the Navy is training, spanning the ocean surface clear from Dana Point to the island and further west. Naval bases in San Diego, Orange County and Ventura contribute to an active schedule on and around the island.
The Navy has possessed the island since WWII and has left much of the space unbuilt to allow for training in open areas. This also means lots of land for wildlife, and a complex relationship between the Navy, preservationists, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that enforces the Environmental Protection act there. The island is home to endangered species, including the San Clemente Island Loggerhead Shrike, which exclusively lives there. (For more on this, see Tracing the San Clemente Island Weapons Testing Range.)
Standard navigation charts of these waters delineate inactive explosives and chemical munitions dumping grounds as much as 1,000 fathoms (6,000 feet) deep under the sea. The fish don’t seem to mind; they swim up and down the coast, passing through these areas like the recreational and commercial boats passing overhead, without paying them much notice. However, the Naval activity at the island is something Southern California boaters pay attention to, even if only to check the San Clemente Island web site for scheduled closures of this dynamic and fluid environment.
Hillary Mushkin is a visual artist exploring contemporary and historical intersections of art, visual culture, social and political consciousness. She works in studio and post-studio forms including drawing, media, and interactive formats. Mushkin frequently collaborates with others from fields including poetry, architecture, and digital media.