The Last Man on Protection Island

Marty Bluewater, Protection Island

An islet became a wildlife haven after humans were evicted—except one

written by Dieter Loibner photos by Kevin Light 

Once, people inhabited Protection Island. Then in 1988 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service transformed it into a national wildlife refuge, evicting all human life—well, nearly all.

protection island

Marty Bluewater’s boat eased along the narrow channel. Her captain exercised caution in the ebbing tide. Running aground now would mean being stuck for hours until the flood returned. Overhead, a pair of bald eagles soared in the updraft while scanning the bay for fish on its surface. Approaching a small manmade harbor at Violet Point, we were engulfed by a cacophony of screaming seagulls trying to feed their offspring while warding off greedy neighbors. On shore, a colony of seals bathed in the sun, each lifting its gaze to blink slowly before dozing off again.

Gliding up to the guano-encrusted dock, the skipper, nicely tanned with a full head of curly gray hair and wearing all white—shirt, shorts, socks and sneakers—casually tied off his vessel and shut down the engines. He has done this for forty-five years, since he first flew over this islet as a college graduate in the early 1970s and fell in love with it. “Welcome to Protection Island,” Bluewater said with an ocean-wide smile. “Welcome to Fantasy Land.”

Born in 1948 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bluewater’s heritage is equal parts Choctaw, Shawnee, Irish and Latino. His father was in the U.S. Air Force and moved the family of six to Seattle when Bluewater was about 10. From 1967 until 1973, Bluewater served in the Air Force Reserve and graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He went to work for the university’s office of financial aid, but spent most of his career with Seattle Parks and the Woodland Park Zoo, managing budgets, business and operations. After retiring, he volunteered on the board of United Indians of All Tribes Foundation and became its director for a couple  years. Working with the Tribes, he said, was the most meaningful thing he had ever done. “It brought me much closer to my native roots,” he noted.

Marty Bluewater, Protection Island

Shaped like a kingfisher’s head and narrow beak, Protection Island is 380 acres and sits in the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the mouth of Discovery Bay. It is only 2 miles northwest of Cape George, a private community where Bluewater keeps his boat.

A little more than two hours north of the crowded Seattle metro area, Protection Island might as well be on another planet. Historically, the S’Klallam tribe used to hunt water fowl there and called it Cha-cha-ne-cuk. During the late eighteenth century came Spanish explorers, who called it Isla de Carrasco. It was Captain George Vancouver who gave the island its present name when he charted these waters in the 1790s. Since then, it has been farmland and pasture, a training ground for the U.S. Navy, then subsequently subdivided for development.

In the 1960s, investors paid $275,000 for the island, built roads and an air strip and subdivided it into 800 lots called Protection Island Beach Club. “There was a landing strip for small planes that flew people over from Everett so they could pick out a building lot,” Bluewater said as he bumped along the jolting ride. Bluewater was one of those customers.

In 1971, counseled by his mother, the 23-year-old Bluewater ponied up $7,000 for a small plot. “I was hooked,” he recalled. “Over the first five years, we pooled what money we had to build a small cabin, and we had great times. I later expanded it with the help of friends.”

Without electricity and offering only scarce water, only a dozen homes were built. When Protection Island was designated as a potential wildlife haven, owners were offered buyouts on a sliding scale of fifteen years’, twenty-five years’ or lifetime use. Bluewater was the only one who opted for the latter.

“One night, I stood on my deck and cried like a baby at the thought of maybe losing my place,” Bluewater recalled.

“I find myself in a situation where … I am forced to defend what I consider some of my more basic rights as a United States citizen,” he wrote in a statement concerning, the proposed Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge Bill. “I am prepared to go to whatever limits necessary to retain my property on Protection Island. Also, I am perfectly willing to assist with the development of any safeguards necessary to ensure that the unique fragile character of the Island is adequately protected. I do not believe that these things are mutually exclusive.”

Marty Bluewater, Protection Island

The ensuing battle made him a symbol for the conflict between private property rights and government power. In the end, Bluewater managed to negotiate maintaining his small footprint as a property owner while supporting habitat conservation and restoration.

In 1988, the island was turned into a National Wildlife Refuge. Now, managed under a comprehensive conservation plan, it is a place where wild things have taken root. Tufted puffins, rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots, cormorants, glaucous-winged gulls and bald eagles nest here. Oystercatchers and fifty different species of land birds have found Protection Island hospitable. Its beaches and surrounding waters are home to harbor and elephant seals, sea lions, orcas and other whale species.

Visitors can come by boat, but they are required to keep 200 yards from shore. A few researchers and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service caretaker periodically spend time here, but only as long as necessary to carry out their work. Being here on terra firma without trespassing is a rare privilege.

protection island

After he loaded supplies from the boat into his van that he keeps parked on a gravelly lot, Bluewater popped the hood to jump the vehicle. “Technology,” he said with a shrug as it sputtered to life. Up a steep and bumpy hillside road we went, navigating a narrow shoulder that dropped precipitously toward the water.

“Let’s stop here for a moment,” Bluewater suggested at a pullout high above the harbor. It is a spot on the grassy plateau that offers a sweeping panorama of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Olympic Peninsula to the southwest, Dungeness Spit due west and the Canadian shoreline in the misty distance to the northwest. Bluewater gazed down at the ground. “This is where auklets dig their burrows with that little horn on the beak,” he said, pointing to the hillside below. The number of these nocturnal birds on this island grew from fewer than 30,000 in the 1970s to more than 70,000 today, making it one of the largest colonies in North America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

If the island is a refuge for wildlife, Bluewater’s cabin is his sanctuary. It sits about 150 feet above the water on a south-facing bluff, near the Zella M. Schultz Seabird Sanctuary overlooking Discovery Bay, Diamond Point and the jagged peaks of the Olympic Mountains. This cabin is also safe harbor for his musical instruments and a collection of oddities and mementos that include a framed concert ticket of Pink Floyd’s The Wall from 1981 in Germany and a plastic mammoth next to a real mammoth tooth, which he said he found alongside a piece of a tusk.

Though Bluewater enjoys it here, Protection Island is not a place of idyllic solitude. Sea otters once made the long and steep trek up from the beach to his cabin where they holed up in the septic tank. “Why they’d do that is beyond me,” he said, shaking his head with amusement. Deer carouse here, and when he’s out, birds of all feathers flap and hop nonchalantly around him, leaving their fecal mark on everything. Summer’s soundtrack largely consists of the gulls’ piercing shrieks. Come fall, they’re all gone, scavenging garbage dumps and fast food joints in Seattle, Bluewater said with a chuckle. It’s only then that he can listen to the wind howling around his chalet while playing music or editing thousands of still and video images he’s taken over the years as part of an ongoing documentation of the island.

The island is also a front row seat in the theater of climate change. Last summer, hundreds of auklets washed up dead on area beaches, possibly due to starvation. Further, scientists who study the gull population on the island noticed an increase in cannibalism. This phenomenon may correlate with increased sea temperatures, which pushes fish to cooler water at greater depths, beyond the reach of birds who feed on them. The rising sea level also poses a threat, as evidenced by the increasing rate of shoreline erosion. “Back in the day, I used to camp on the cliff beyond the little forest on the north side,” Bluewater said wistfully. “Now, that spot is completely gone.”

The large number of bald eagles also poses a problem. “They made a strong comeback after being decimated by DDT,” Bluewater said, invoking a harmful insecticide widely used prior to 1972. “But that means they are fighting for habitat and food, seeking out this island in larger numbers and feeding on seagulls and auklets. It’s not normal, but then again, the concept of normal has gone out the window a long time ago.”

protection island

Bluewater jumped his van again for the bumpy trip back across the plateau and down to Violet Point. The water level in the harbor is high enough for his vintage cabin cruiser to traverse the narrow channel safely. But before heading back to Cape George, he detoured to Kanem Point on the western end of the island. He checked in on the elephant seals that had pups here instead of migrating down the coast to California and the crowded breeding grounds of Año Nuevo. But they were out for the day, presumably running errands. Bluewater shrugged. He knows he’ll be back on the island soon enough.

Now in his late 60s, Bluewater takes friends and acquaintances to the island with him, not just to share his personal wild preserve, but to educate them about the history and ecology of this place and to support fundraising efforts of community groups. “Bluewater,” The Seattle Times quoted a Fish and Wildlife supervisor saying in 2006, “has been a good neighbor.”

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