Though it is thought to have never been permanently inhabited, Santa Barbara Island may have played a crucial role in the lives of the island peoples who occupied the surrounding Channel Islands for at least 10,000 years. Archeological evidence suggests that Santa Barbara Island may have been a convenient stopover on inter-island trade routes, a testament to its central location in the Channel Islands chain. The rich marine life found here may have drawn people to seasonally harvest the shores of this island for shellfish, seals, and fish. Recent studies indicate this may have begun about 4,000 years ago.
The first European visitor to the Channel Islands in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer, made no mention of this island. Sixty years later, the island was named by Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino, who visited the island on December 4, 1602, the feast day dedicated to Santa Barbara. The island was infrequently visited in subsequent years, owning largely to its sparse vegetation and lack of a reliable water source. Santa Barbara Island did play host to an assemblage of seal hunters, squatters, fishermen, and the occasional whaling ship off its shores.
A few notable individuals eked out a living here, chief among them the family of Alvin Hyder. After a winning bid of $250 in 1916, Hyder and his family assumed ownership of the island and were the first to establish a residence of any permanence there. Hard work and a constant struggle to maintain a supply of fresh water were trademark features of a tough existence on this island. Santa Barbara Island would become a part of the Channel Islands National Monument in 1938 and was utilized as a Coastal Lookout Station during WWII. Santa Barbara Island became part of the Channel Islands National Park upon its establishment in 1980.
Santa Barbara Island is home to a large sea lion rookery and seabird nesting colonies, including three species of storm-petrel, three species of cormorant, and the once-endangered California brown pelican. It is also home to the largest breeding colony for the Scripps’s Murrelet, a threatened seabird species. Scripps’s murrelet is listed as vulnerable, and is mainly threatened by oil spills, as the population exists in such a small area and is adjacent to the heavily trafficked shipping lanes that connect to the Port of Los Angeles. Spring rains bring out the flowering plants, such as the Giant coreopsis, the endemic Santa Barbara Island live-forever (Dudleya traskiae), shrubby buckwheat, sea blite, and an annual poppy. There is a visitor contact station and museum on the island with exhibits, dioramas, and murals of the natural and cultural resources.