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The Big Picture San Diego Blog


San Clemente Island

April 15, 2013

Photo Credit: Tony Manolatos

On the plane ride from Coronado to the U.S. Navy’s secluded San Clemente Island, more than one person made a reference to the hit dramatic series “Lost” and the eerie remoteness the TV show shared with our destination. From the plane you could see there wasn’t much to look at on this rugged and narrow stretch of land about 70 miles northwest of San Diego.

San Clemente Island is a place few civilians know about and even fewer see, but it plays a critical role in preparing the Navy to protect and serve. Every Navy SEAL, including the ones who took out Osama bin Laden, trains here at some point. Two “towns” have been built to resemble communities in the Middle East. It’s here where the SEALs, who train for two years before their first combat mission, practice missions at night. Snipers firing at moving targets inside buildings is just one of numerous clandestine training operations carried out routinely on the island.

At the far south end, Navy ships fire ashore while helicopters zero in on targets below. The U.S. Marines also use the island to conduct amphibious assault training and the FBI works there with Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams.  

The 21-mile island is just part of the story; to the west, an ocean area the size of California is where Naval ships and aircraft practice maneuvers.

No one lives on the island year-round and on off days you’ll find less than 100 people. The convenience store is stocked with chewing tobacco and is next door to the lone bar - the Salty Crab. All of the common areas, including the mess hall and the gym, are spotless. The Navy acquired San Clemente Island in 1934. Before that, it was home to goats and farmers.

Today, it is the Navy’s only remaining ship-to-shore live firing range, but it’s facing potential cutbacks due to sequestration. The Navy recently invited a Photo Credit: Tony Manolatoshandful of San Diegans to the island so we have a better understanding of the role it plays in military preparations.

During our visit, we heard just as much about the environment and wildlife as we heard about training exercises. On one part of the island, SEAL hopefuls were on Day 2 of “Hell Week” - which wasn’t even an afterthought among the biologists and botanists working to protect native plants and wildlife.

If the Navy encounters endangered species it stops training until the animals are safely removed from the area - a process that can take months and cost millions of dollars.

From a recent U-T San Diego story:

“The Navy spent more than $7 million last fiscal year to protect the island’s endangered or threatened species, which include 10 federally listed animals and plants.

"Now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering delisting or downgrading the status of three protected species - the Island Night Lizard and two plants - because they are flourishing, said Sandy Vissman, the federal agency’s coordinator for the island.”

Adm. Dixon Smith and Capt. Gary Mayes led our visit of the 56-square-mile island on Tuesday (April 9), and we couldn’t have asked for better hosts.

These two men, and other men and women we met, care deeply about San Clemente Island, the training missions and the plants and animals who flourish there. They took the time to talk to each of us individually and answer all of our questions.

These are difficult times financially for the Navy and other military branches, but leaders like Adm. Smith and Capt. Mayes make it difficult for you to focus on the negative. We are fortunate to have such exceptional people committed to serving America.

As we said our goodbyes and left the island, we were again reminded of the TV series "Lost.”

The show frequently made viewers aware of one of life’s great lessons - it’s easier to succeed, and survive, with the help of others. Lost’s fascinating cast of characters constantly found themselves in need of support from others - in both obvious and unexpected ways.

On the plane ride home from San Clemente Island, we realized we now have a role in supporting the men and women on this remote patch of land. It was clear to us that it was our job to bring you their story, to write about our experiences, to do what we could to support the fascinating cast of characters we had just met.