Mysteriously, the Channel Islands–with the exception of Catalina–have remained an under-the-radar destination for outdoor adventurers, birders, naturalists, camping enthusiasts, snorkelers, spelunkers, divers, whale watchers, Island Fox chasers, cave explorers, anthropologists, dermatologists, street artists, baristas, barbers, accountants and Lady Gagas–as in, everyone who remains ignorant to the wonders that await them across the channel from the Central Coast. The “American Galapagos,” so called because of the concentration of endemic species, have something for all walks of life and levels of appreciation for stunning ocean views and the resilience of nature.
So, instead of getting my mom another pair of turquoise earrings for Mother’s Day this year, I took her to Santa Cruz Island, the largest in the Channel Islands National Park. Granted, the trip was one of the perks of working at a PR agency and didn’t require a big investment, but it’s the thought that counts, as long as it’s accompanied by a huge balloon and mushy card.
We drove an hour north to the Ventura Harbor for our noon departure with Island Packers, the go-to outfitters for channel crossings. The crew is chipper and friendly, the captain informative and full of jokes. We got on board the catamaran with a mixed crowd, including a group of guys with a few cases of beer, which for some people makes a great breakfast when camping. My mom and I joined my boss and the group of of writers we gathered together for a press trip showcasing Ventura’s many eco-friendly aspects, including tasting at an organic tequila ranch. We didn’t take part in the other activities, and if tequila wasn’t my enemy I would have been jealous.
The hour-long voyage usually comes with any number of marine life sightings, the holy grail being blue or gray whales, humpbacks, and even killer whales, depending on the season. If you get a kick out of frolicking pods of dolphins, sunning seals and sea lions, hunting killer whales, and the way pelicans dive in the water like badass ninjas to grab fish, you’ll probably enjoy the boat ride to the Channel Islands. Unless you’re susceptible to motion sickness because it can be a bumpy ride. The most action we saw though, aside from some sea lions chilling on a buoy, was a crew member retrieving a bunch of stray party balloons from the water, probably saving some leather backed sea turtles from an unnatural death.
We arrived at Scorpion Bay harbor, and got ready for a mellow four-mile hike around the island led by Dave, a knowledgeable National Park Service employee. We stopped now and then to take pictures and to listen while our guide pointed out the various endemic and invasive species. While the terrain seems rather bare in places, Dave assured us that due to the gradual removal of all sheep, pigs and other critters brought over by ranchers in the latter half of the 19th century, native plants are making a comeback and the islands are becoming more and more lush. One plant in particular stands out as one that does not belong among the small shrubs and overall treeless geography: a huge eucalyptus tree dominating the campsite. Hard-core conservationists say it should be removed because historically it shouldn’t be there, but campers appreciate the shade it provides. I say, let it be so that any wayward koala bears that accidentally land on the island have a place to live. But I digress.
I had been to Santa Cruz Island before, also with a press trip, but we spent the day on a guided kayak trip along the cliff edge and through sea caves– like the one below–learning about kelp, sea urchins, geography of the islands and the like. Kayaking, when weather permits, is definitely the way to go if you want a more up-close and personal experience.
We came to the end of the trail at Potato Harbor, named after the legendary Captain Albert “Potato” Dupé who had a thing for spuds. That’s one version. Dave said it’s because it just looks like a potato. Dubious.