After winter, the island suffers a period of extremely hot weather. The tide is lower than Karana has ever seen it, and the sun is so bright that she has to wear wooden shields over her eyes to see.
One day, she works to repair her canoe, but the heat exhausts her, and she takes a nap in the afternoon. While resting under the canoe, she is suddenly woken by a thunderous crash. A tsunami-size wave is approaching the island.
Karana runs inland just in time to save herself, but a second wave is even larger. She has to cling to the cliff for her life. The flooding leaves her stranded for the night, and she sleeps at the foot of the cliff.
When she finally gets home, Rontu-Aru is thrilled to see her. That evening, Karana is out gathering water from the spring when a large earthquake throws her to the ground. Although the earthquake damages the entrance to her house, she is not upset, but rather relieved that it did not do more damage.
Although the earthquake caused only minor damage, the tsunami waves destroyed Karana’s canoe as well as all the food and weapons she had stored in the sea caves.
Because it takes so much wood to build a canoe, Karana decides to search for pieces of the wreckage. She manages to find most of the canoe buried in the sand. To avoid more damage from future storms, she floats the wreckage into the cove, and then carries the remaining pieces up the trail.
While collecting seaweed to help repair the canoe, Karana spots a ship on the horizon. It does not have the Aleuts’ red sails, nor does it look like the white men’s ship that carried away her people so many years before. She is unsure whether the newcomers will be friendly or hostile, so she hides and watches as they come to shore in a canoe. The men walk out of sight, but Karana knows they have found evidence of her presence when they begin to shout. She puts on her best clothes and grabs her jewelry box, taking one last look at the mound where her ancestors are buried. Although she has come to consider the island her home, Karana cares more about living with other people, and anticipates leaving.
She runs to where the men anchored their canoe, yet sees they are already rowing back to their ship because of an impending storm. She calls out to them, but they cannot hear her over the wind.
Two years later, the ship returns.
When the men build a fire, Karana realizes they plan to stay for a while, so she takes the time to put on her best clothes and jewelry. She even uses clay to make the same marks on her face that Ulape made when they left the island – that is, the marks that show that a girl is ready for marriage.
The men hike up to her house, and Karana walks out to face them. Although she does not understand their language, Karana is happy to see them, and communicates with gestures. She gathers some baskets of her possessions, puts two of her pet birds in a cage, and walks with the men to their camp.
The men make her a dress using the fabric from their trousers. Karana thinks the dress is ugly, and does not like how it scratches and covers so much of her body, but she wears it to be polite, putting her cormorant dress aside to wear later.
The men stay for nine days to hunt otter, but the otter recognize the danger and flee to Tall Rock. Karana knows where they are hiding, but refuses to tell the hunters.
On the tenth day, they sail for the mainland. Karana brings Rontu-Aru and her two songbirds with her.
To the reader, she mentions that she later lived at Mission Santa Barbara, where she met someone named Father Gonzales, with whom she was able to communicate. She learns from Father Gonzales that the ship that took her people away sunk before her rescue could be arranged, and that there were no other ships available to come get her.
In the last scene of the novel, Karana looks back on the island as she sails away. She reflects fondly on “all the happy days” she had on the island with her pets (173). Dolphins swim alongside the boat as she looks to the future.
Island of the Blue Dolphins unfolds at a slower pace than many children’s books do, but its final three chapters feature several dramatic moments for Karana.
The novel's slow pace mostly works to reflect the great length of time Karana spends on the island. Just like Karana’s life, the novel features long periods of little action, punctuated with occasional scenes of great excitement and danger. Similarly, it has an occasionally repetitive feel, mirroring the way that the natural seasons ebb and flow. And yet these final chapters amp up the action. Although the novel does not follow a traditional narrative arc, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami can be considered its climax.
Karana must call on all of the mental and physical skills she has learned over her years in order to survive. For example, she must quickly take apart and reassemble her canoe after it is destroyed by the tsunami wave. However, the earthquake also tests Karana’s mental and emotional strength. Her frightening night on the cliff echoes the night she had to spend in Black Cave many years before, which forced her to face her fears. Her reaction to the earthquake shows how much she has grown. Rather than being upset at her losses or angry about needing to do more work, Karana immediately accepts her changed circumstances, and feels grateful that the damage was not worse. In other words, she has come to fully appreciate her place as part of nature, rather than superior to it.
Although the white sailors do not rescue Karana the first time they visit the island, their presence is crucial in forcing her to realize what she truly wants. Karana has come to accept her life on the island as a given, and has redefined her values in order to appreciate that life. She has made incredibly close friends in Rontu-Ara and her birds, and knows that her family has most certainly moved on. And yet it takes her only moments to gather her things and try to catch up to them. No matter how acclimated she has become to life on the island, she nevertheless prizes human contact above all else. She only comes to realize this, however, when the chance to change her circumstances arises.
Her behavior when the white sailors return reflects her feelings even more strongly. Not only does she immediately prepare to join them, but she dresses herself as Ulape did, in a way that communicates her personality, age, and interests to others. She wants to be seen as a normal, socialized human, not as the singular figure she has become because of her unique experience. This desire is also reflected by her willingness to wear the dress that the men make. The conservative nature of the dress conforms to the expectations of 19th century life, wherein a woman was expected to show modesty. Though concerns of this sort are entirely foreign to Karana - as well as uncomfortable - she quickly conforms to them. In the same way that she has learned that she is subservient to nature, so is she ready to conform to social expectations in order to change her life.
The real Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island did not have an easy transition to life on the mainland. By the time she was rescued, her entire tribe had dispersed or died. In the nineteenth century, many Native Americans were extremely vulnerable to diseases brought over by Europeans, such as smallpox and dysentery. Unlike the white settlers, the Native Americans had not built up immunity to these diseases, and many of them fell sick and died shortly after making contact with white settlers. The Lone Woman was no exception – only two weeks after arriving on the mainland, she died of dysentery. And although she seemed overjoyed to finally have found human contact, there was no one left who could speak her language.
In adapting the Lone Woman’s story for young readers, O’Dell left out many of these details. He implies that Karana was eventually able to communicate with someone named Father Gonzales after she was rescued. He also chooses to end the novel while Karana is en route to the mainland. This allows him to end on a hopeful note without changing history. Rather than focusing on the Lone Woman’s tragic death, he instead writes about her hopes and dreams about her new life in Santa Barbara. He suggests that she was able to keep her pets, and perhaps even get married and see her family again. Had he traced the culture class more in-depth, the novel might have taken on a more social theme, about cruelty or sensitivities between cultures. By ending where he did, O'Dell makes the novel into a more universal story of humanity, of the way time changes us, of the power humans have to endure, and of the natural desire we have to be connected to others.