Vista Del Mar Union School (year unknown)

With a short speech and slight tip of his cowboy hat, J.J. Hollister III on Friday handed the last of his family’s agricultural land to Sam and Ruth Dover and their Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute (CIMWI). The Santa Barbara facility – located on the Gaviota Coast in the old Vista Del Mar Union School – rescues, rehabilitates, and releases the dozens of sick or injured marine mammals found in Ventura County each year.

Turning over the deed marks the end of an era for the Hollister family, which for more than a century owned hundreds of thousands of acres throughout California. On Friday, J.J. Hollister – great grandson of rancher William Welles Hollister – explained that his family acquired the 2.8-acre Vista Del Mar parcel in 1864. It was given to the county school district in 1927 and operated as a K-8 campus for many years until, in 1985, it was abandoned when toxic pollution was found oozing out of the nearby Chevron processing plant. The parcel was then given back to the Hollisters and zoned for agriculture. (That designation also allows for other specific uses like veterinary medicine, for instance.)

The old Vista Del Mar Union School, now headquarters for the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute

The property remained abandoned for the next 20 years – kids took to breaking the old school building’s windows and a Vietnam vet moved in, scrawling his life story on the walls – until the Dovers started CIMWI in 2006. Amy Blakemore, a Vista Del Mar alum who attended the Friday press conference, said she and others were “so happy” to see the school turn back into a living, breathing institution after lamenting for years that it had fallen into disrepair. Her former principal, still in touch with her mother, caught wind of the announcement and forwarded his excitement in an email.

Lauding the Dovers for the time, energy, and cash – and lots of each – they’ve put into CIMWI over the last few years, Hollister said his family’s decision to transfer the land to the couple was just what his great-grandfather, a conservationist who resisted development, would have wanted. “We think this is a perfect marriage between the old family and the new,” Hollister said. All 37 family members had to sign off on the transaction, Hollister explained later, which took time but not a lot of convincing.

Sam and Ruth Dover
Paul Wellman

“Thank you, J.J.,” said Dr. Sam Dover, CIMWI’s executive director and chief veterinarian. “Obviously, all the work you have done for us over the years we can never repay, but we’ll do our best to take care of this facility…The donation of the Vista Del Mar Union School from the Hollister family and the heirs is monumental.” The Dovers connected with the Hollisters through Fred Benko, owner and captain of the Condor Express, who married the couple on his boat.

The Independent toured CIMWI’s facilities last year, not long after the Dovers built two outside pool areas for their rescues – usually California sea lions – to recuperate before they’re released back into the wild. At the time they’d also talked about replacing windows, expanding electricity and plumbing to other parts of the property, and making general improvements to its infrastructure – all goals they’ve crossed off the list after receiving a couple key grants and tackling the projects with help from their team of volunteers. While CIMWI can currently house and treat roughly 25 animals, the Dovers hope to grow large enough to accommodate 100 patients in the next 10 years.

A sea lion pup treated at CIMWI in 2010
Paul Wellman (file)

The Dovers continue to refurbish and renew Vista Del Mar, hoping one day soon to complete the pharmacy and lab areas as well as a surgery room. If the next grant they applied for comes through, Sam explained, they’ll likely install a dolphin pool – 16 feet in diameter and 4 feet deep – on the grounds. It was donated by Sea World, where Sam worked for many years before striking out on his own. In fact, on Friday he’d just returned from Las Vegas and the Mirage Resort & Casino, where he treated a few of their show dolphins, and would soon be heading out to Jamaica to check in on a number of other dolphins he cares for. “It’s how we pay the bills,” he said.

Asked about the significant distance between CIMWI and its coverage area – the 43 miles of Ventura coastline – and how or why they chose the old school for their headquarters, Ruth said a few factors went into the decision. Most simply, she said, land is expensive and hard to come by, and when the two saw the opportunity to acquire a good-sized parcel near the coast and at a reasonable price, they jumped at it. The land also doesn’t have any neighbors, said Ruth, which is a real plus when you have barking sea lions as your tenants. Lastly – admitting the 30-minute drive down to Ventura is a bit of a hike – Ruth said the time and distance don’t hinder CIMWI’s ability to respond to sick or injured animals; the drive there and back isn’t long enough to spell the difference between life and death.


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