Island of the Blue Dolphins opens with Karana's memory of the day the Aleut ship came to Ghalas-at. She and her brother Ramo spot the ship approaching the village. A group of the strangers lands on the shore, bringing with them Captain Orlov, a Russian who has come to the island to hunt otter. The chief of Karana's village, Chowig (who is Karana and Ramo's father), parleys with the Russian. Karana wonders to herself why her father reveals his secret name when introducing himself to Orlov. Every member of Karana's tribe has two names: one they use in everyday life and one that they keep secret. If their second name is overused it will lose its magic. Karana's name for every day use is Won-a-pa-lei, meaning "the Girl with the Long Black Hair."
There is disagreement between Orlov and Chowig regarding a previous hunting trip that caused problems on Ghalas-at, though the details of those problems are not revealed. Chowig and Orlov finally agree that they will split the spoils of the hunting trip equally. Karana has been listening to their conversation from a spot on a cliff above the beach. Now, however, a rock falls from the cliff, ad Karana, startled, runs back to the village before she can hear any more.
By beginning the novel with the words "I remember," O'Dell not only introduces Karana's narrative voice, but also reveals that Karana will one day leave her island and find someone to whom she can tell her story. Karana begins her tale by describing the driving force of the narrative, the arrival of the Aleut ship. Karana spots the ship in the distance, and describes it first as a "shell afloat on the sea," then as a "gull with folded wings." These comparisons show how Karana blurs distinctions between reality and perception. Later in the chapter she discusses how her "brother liked to pretend that one thing was another" (he calls the sea a "flat stone without any scratches"), but seems to ignore how she does the exact same thing. Throughout the novel, Karana matter-of-factly uses rich metaphors to describe her world and her feelings.
Chapter 1 introduces Karana's tribe and their traditions, which are important because of the effect they have on Karana. The secret name, a tradition of Karana's tribe, is used as a mark of trust later in the novel. The Aleuts, who are present though their influence for the rest of Island of the Blue Dolphins, make their first appearance as well. The tension between Orlov and Chowing regarding some past incident is evident in chapter one, and it is such mistrust and tensionthat leads to problems for Karana's tribe later on.