Dr. Lyndal Laughrin

University of California Santa Cruz Island Reserve

Everyday we are influenced by someone’s efforts and passion.  Their interests or talents may not be our own, but they will play a part in the backdrop of our own life’s stage where we pursue our own interests and passions.  One image that is on the ocean’s horizon of Santa Barbara County is the Channel Islands.  Specifically, Santa Cruz Island looms large on a clear day, or can be seen as a fuzzy purple blur in the grey marine haze.  Many of us know nothing about this island and yet it has more square miles than Manhattan.  One of it’s few full time inhabitants is, Dr. Lyndal Laughrinwho has dedicated his career to developing the University of California’s Santa Cruz Island Reserve.  Dr. Laughrin came to Santa Cruz Island in 1965 to finish his graduate work while studying the indigenous island fox.  His work and purpose evolved from a research biologist to the scientific Don and Director of the Reserve and it’s Field Station, where scientists from all over the world come to further their studies.  For over 40 years, Dr. Laughrin has facilitated biologists, botanists, archeologists, and historians with their research.  Meanwhile, he is, and was, an integral leader in the bureaucratic relationships between the University of California, The Nature Conservancy (who owns 75% of the island), the National Park Service (25% owner) and the past private owner, cattle rancher and pathologist, Dr. Carey Stanton. 


The bottom line is, Dr. Laughrin’s efforts and passion have contributed to the preservation and conservation of a phenomenal environment that is equivalent to the Gala’pagos Islands. I, along with other plein air artists who suffer from island fever, frequently cross the channel to capture the vistas, flora and fauna with paint and canvas.   We chase the early morning and afternoon light, enthusiastically studying the nuance and mood of this multi-faceted terrain.  Many of these paintings and studies go back to the mainland, and are sold to raise more funds to support the UC Reserve Field Station through S.C.A.P.E, (Southern California Artists Painting for the Environment), an organization of painters who raise funds for the environment. On one such occasionat the culmination of a painting trip with this troupe of S.C.A.P.E. artists, we gathered around our smorgasbord of food for our last dinner.  Over the years, I have met a multitude of fascinating acquaintances at this same dinner table, which serves as the dining hall and conference room at the University of California Reserve Field Station. These acquaintances have ranged from the Nature Conservancy’s facilities manager, Dave Dewey,  and New Zealand pig hunters, who were contracted to eradicate the feral pigs, to numerous biologists studying birds of prey and island jays or botanists measuring dew captured in the indigenous pines. 

Lyndal, quietly participated as our host on this occasion, as he had at many of these lively gatherings; and, every once in awhile, he would share a tidbit about his own journey in life, or a morsel of island history would slide into the conversation, and I realized that, this man was as fascinating and enthralling as any corner of the island!  

The Human Landscape

I felt compelled to paint his portrait.  I wanted to capture his human landscape as well.  After all, like the Island, he too was “one of a kind,” and a single lifetime is so fleeting in comparison to the lifetime of an island.  Dr. Laughrin, I realized, had seen 40 years of ecological and sociological transformations on this 96 square mile landmass. And forty consecutive years of anything is rare in any 21st century career path.

So, I boldly asked this humble man if he would be willing to let me paint a portrait of him and he graciously allowed me to come to his island home to find a suitable scenario.  It was from this encounter that the whole idea of painting people who influence our collective Central Coast culture began. 

I think the best character references I can muster for Dr. Laughrin, is the iconic Indiana Jones.  Perhaps George Lucas and Steven Spielberg fashioned their character after him.  After all, he is fluent in island biology, has a deep knowledge of archeology, geology and conservation, and can drive a Jeep up and down the most treacherous cliff hanging dirt roads.   He also has the swagger of a man who is comfortable in both rustic and professional environments. I am not exaggerating in the slightest when I say that Lyndal is a scientist, professor, cowboy, opera lover, mechanic, television actor, plumber, art collector, educator, academic bureaucrat, environmentalist, and world traveler…. to name a few.  He may be a secret agent, but would not confirm this personal suspicion.  Talk about a renaissance man!  And he lives on an island that probably has 5 full time residents.  Granted, Dr. Laughrin is part of one of the University of California, one of the finest educational institutions in the world, which speaks to his personal aptitude and intelligence.  But there are few of us, who can be as diverse as he is and still hold such a breadth of knowledge.  And, he is as humble and quiet about his wealth of experience as a church mouse. He is the real deal.  Quiet waters run deep.

However, he is not stingy with his knowledge and life experience.   He has helped build and run the Reserve Field Station that has servedthousands of scientists and helped hoards of University students further their academic journeys.  I saw, first hand, the enthusiasm and engagement from elementary students who got to come to a marine biology camp and use this field station as their schoolroom. Dr. Laughrin’s life work is continually planting seeds in the next generation and we all reap the harvest from this scientific knowledge.  

I can see how a life lived with purpose and in pursuit of knowledge, in order to serve others, can leave a large impact.  We are fortunate that there are people who are passionate about our planet and environment.  We all benefit from our conservationists and environmental biologists.  Next time you see Santa Cruz Island sitting quietly on the ocean’s horizon, I hope you remember this portrait of Dr. Lyndal Laughrin.

By Holli Harmon