Point Conception, Gaviota Coast

Point Conception, Gaviota Coast

by | Aug 3, 2021

Point Conception is located on the Gaviota Coast, at the western end of the Santa Barbara Channel, about 45 miles (72 km) west of Santa Barbara and 13 miles (21 km) south of Lompoc, California. The double headlands of Point Conception and Point Arguello, which are about 14 miles (23 km) apart, creates a natural division between the Central California coast and the Southern California Bight. This region has been inhabited since the Paleoindian Period, 13,000 to 8,500 years ago, and at least 14 Chumash villages were located along the coastline. The Chumash people have traditionally known this headland as the “Western Gate”. The first sighting of Point Conception by a European was on October 18, 1542, by the Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. He encountered high winds while rounding the point and was driven across the Santa Barbara Channel to San Miguel Island. In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaíno sailed past the cape and named it Punta de la Limpia Concepcion. The Spanish began colonizing Alta California following the Portolá expedition of 1769–1770. In 1794, a Spanish land grant called Rancho Nuestra Señora del Refugio that included Point Conception was given to José Francisco Ortega, and in 1834, a Mexican title of the land was granted to Antonio Maria Ortega by Mexican Governor José Figueroa. The Gaviota Coast is still a rural coastline and is considered the last undeveloped stretch of Southern California. In December 2017, The Nature Conservancy purchased the expansive Cojo Jalama Ranches surrounding Point Conception with a donation from Jack and Laura Dangermond, and the property will be known as the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve.

The original light station at Point Conception was one of the earliest lighthouses built in California. The station was on a sandstone promontory 215 feet (66 m) above the ocean. Construction began in 1854, with supplies freighted down the coast from San Francisco and then off-loaded through the surf at Cojo Landing located just east of the point. From the beach, the construction materials were hauled uphill by ox-drawn wagons. The original lighthouse was a single-story dwelling featuring a tower rising through the center similar to the structure at Point Loma. The tower lantern room was designed to house an Argand lamp and reflector, but by the time this was completed, the U.S. Lighthouse Board ordered the installation of a first-order Henry-Lepaute Fresnel lens. The light was finally activated on February 1, 1856, and the Point Conception Lighthouse became the seventh operating lighthouse on the U.S. west coast. In 1881, the lighthouse was moved to a lower elevation of 133 feet (41 m) above sea level because severe fog was less likely to obscure the light, In May 1882, a fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed. In 1948, the station was electrified and the oil lamps were removed. The light station was automated in 1973, ending 117 years of manned operations.

The weather at Point Conception is often windy, especially in the winter when winds are predominantly from the southeast through the Santa Barbara Channel. These gale-force winds were experienced by Cabrillo in 1542 and well documented by Richard Henry Dana in 1840 on Pilgrim, a sailing brig of 86.5 feet (26.4 m) overall length. The point is also known for unusual waves even in calm weather. On November 4, 2000, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary research vessel Ballena of 56 feet (17 m) overall length, capsized in a rogue wave north of Point Conception. The vessel was working for the U. S. Geological Survey and engaged in a routine side-scan sonar survey of the seafloor along the 30-foot (10 m) depth contour approximately 0.25 nautical miles (0.5 km) from the shore. The crew included the captain, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Corps officer Lieutenant Commander Mark Pickett, Dr. Guy Cochrane, and assistant Mike Boyle. The weather was fair, with clear skies and swells of 5 to 7 feet (1.5 to 2 m) but calm winds. Pickett and Boyle said they observed a wave of about 15 feet (4.5 m) in height begin to break 100 feet (30 m) to seaward of the boat. The wave crested and caught Ballena broadside, breaking over and capsizing the vessel. Two crew members were briefly trapped inside but were able to find their way to the bridge doors and escape the overturned vessel and deploy the vessel’s liferaft. The crew attempted to paddle to the shore but realized that navigating the raft safely to shore was unlikely due to strong near-shore currents. The crew abandoned the liferaft approximately 150 feet (46 m) from shore and attempted to swim to safety. After reaching shore, Pickett swam back out to first assist Boyle to shore and again to assist Cochrane to shore. The crew then climbed the rocky cliffs along the shore and survived. The vessel broke apart in the waves against the rocky shore and was a total loss. Read more here and here. Explore more of Point Conception here:

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