The Californian Channel Islands: A day on Santa Cruz Island

One of the joys of being a houseguest with my sister and brother-in-law in California is that they become temporary tourists during my visit. But they aren’t just aimless wandering tourists – they have the perfect balance of in-the-know and bright-eye’d-enthusiasm. They have only lived in LA for a couple of years, and with minimal days off from their demanding careers, much of the surrounding area remains unexplored to them.

My latest visit fell over the Labor Day long weekend. Oops. This holiday was totally off of my radar due to ten years of expattery, and made it a bit tricky to find something fun to do that the whole of LA hadn’t already thought of. Initially we wanted to go to Catalina Island, but after consulting the interwebs my sister decided we should check out the other Channel Islands – the ones that many long-time LA residents have never even heard of!

The Channel Islands are made up of five land masses, of which Catalina seems to be the rock star. So we opted to check out her more natural and less famous neighbour – Santa Cruz Island. There might not be a minor resort town or introduced herds of buffalo on Santa Cruz, but that was just fine with us!

Santa Cruz Island is just over an hour from Los Angeles, has no permanent human residents and is part of an archipelago known as the ‘North American Galapagos’. 

All in an easy day trip?! Let’s do it!

Scorpion Anchorage
Scorpion Anchorage, Santa Cruz Island
The Island: General Info

Santa Cruz island is pretty big (100 square miles), and very dry. Some important info right off the bat:

  • Visitor center: YES
  • Fresh water: YES
  • Public bathrooms: YES
  • Food and beverages: NO
  • Garbage cans: NO

So the take home message: bring a big water bottle as well as lunch, and be prepared to pack everything off of the island! Also, don’t forget the sunscreen! We were using SPF 30 and 55 (and all of us had reasonable tans already) and we were cooked by the end of the day.

The boat

Going to the island:

We hopped a boat from Ventura over to Santa Cruz (Scorpion Anchorage) with Island Packers. Island Packers is the only commercial company that takes people out to the Northern islands, so I was a bit worried about what to expect due to this total lack of competition. The tickets were a little pricey ($59 per person), despite having purchased them several months in advance.

They recommend arriving 45 minutes early – and diligently we did just this. But many people didn’t show up or check in until a few minutes before departure. But no worries – with our extra time we walked to Ventura Harbor Village (5 minutes) and found a latte to have with the breakfast bagels we had brought along. We sat on the benches and watched the boats come and go in the harbour.

At 9.00 we boarded the boat, which was full (packed, even!). We managed to get decent seats pretty easily, despite all the people. We found a front-row bench and installed ourselves on the upper deck of the boat. The captain announced a predicted smooth sailing, yet on departure a chorus of seasickness quickly erupted around us. The three of us felt fine and enjoyed the fresh air (good thing the boat is open!). The crew was helpful and sympathetic to the seasick symphony around us – dashing up and down the stairs with puke bags, napkins and water. They were on top of the situation and still managed to chat and be generally friendly with other passengers between clean-up work.

Enjoying the ocean air & scanning the horizon for whales
Enjoying the ocean air & scanning the horizon for whales

Within a few minutes we had our first dolphin spotting – a pod of common dolphins. They didn’t swim along in front of the boat, as is often their habit, but we did get a good view of them speeding alongside us and rocketing out of the water. Marine mammal spottings from the boat are quite common – and you can even check out what has been spotted off of the Island Packers boats by day! How cool is that?!

The ride over was a little more than an hour, and during the entire trip the captain periodically checked in with interesting info about the ocean wildlife, the marine reserves, shipping practices and the general history of the area. In addition, we had a volunteer with the parks services on board – Susan. She introduced herself and announced that she would lead a nature walk once we arrived. Being a biologist this was something I couldn’t pass up! More about this below.

The ferry back:

We caught the 5.00 pm ferry back, which I thought would feel ‘late’ but actually it felt like our trip was cut short! On the return trip fewer people were seasick – or perhaps they just went to a quiet corner of the boat. The upper deck was jovial – onboard they sell a good selection of reasonably priced ($4) beers, so most of us were really getting the most out of the fleeting moments of our day trip.

We arrived back in Ventura around 6.00, and Island Packers had left their reception and gift shop open for us. Lots of people went in to book their next trip, and we snuck into the gift shop to check the field guides and do a quick ID on some of the fish we saw.

In summary:

Though Island Packers is the only choice to get to the Channel Islands, they are still a GREAT choice ! The fleet was clean and well maintained, they were punctual, knowledgable and just really friendly. You could tell the employees were happy (even when holding puke bags… wow!). Would I ride with them again? In a heartbeat. And I take back what I said about $59 being a bit steep – it is a very reasonable price for the service provided!

What to do on the island

There are four main activities on Santa Cruz: hiking, swimming, diving and kayaking. It is also possible to camp on the island, but be aware reservations must be made well, well in advance – there are very few campsites. We split our day 50/50 between hiking and swimming.

Hiking

There are a number of trails on Santa Cruz Island, ranging from super easy to somewhat challenging. The visitor centre at Scorpion Farm has a 3D map of the island with the trails on it, and this can help one to visualise the topography, since some of the hikes do have steep bits.

We walked from Scorpion Anchorage, where the boat arrived, up to Cavern Point. This took about an hour, since we were with the parks volunteer who was giving a presentation on the natural history of the island. It probably would have taken about 15 minutes up the short, steep slope, had we been on our own. From Cavern Point there is a sweeping view looking back towards the Californian coast. Looking down the drop off you will see blue seas and kelp forests, and possibly a couple of boats.

Potato Harbor: What do you mean I can't swim there!?
Potato Harbor: What do you mean I can’t swim there!?

From Cavern Point we walked another 45 minutes to Potato Harbor, where we set up and had our picnic lunch. The view is similar to Cavern Point, but the harbour below is even more beautiful with rocky beaches and crystal waters. It was actually a bit torturous since you can’t actually get down to the beach, and have to enjoy it from above!

Despite being a pretty open, high up viewpoint (i.e. potentially way too windy), Potato Harbor made a pleasant lunch spot and none of our evil plastic flew away – it was all packed out and recycled!

Due to the lack of trees and high temperatures, I would recommend sticking to these smaller trails around Scorpion Anchorage if you want to have a relaxed day. If you are an avid hiker and don’t want to spend your day in the water, the hike from Scorpion Anchorage to Smugglers Cove is a bit longer – I believe I heard people saying it was about four hours, round-trip.

–Nature Hike with Susan

A volunteer from the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps joined our boat and offered a nature walk to those interested. She rounded up about 20-30 of us and gave an excellent presentation. Susan was well-spoken and managed to project loudly enough that we could all hear her – a rare trait in popular-science group settings. She managed to spot a Channel Island fox, and while we got our photos she explained the history of the fox, how it almost went extinct when the island was deforested and the widespread use of DDT deconstructed much of the island’s food chain.

Further along she gave us interesting anecdotes about the dwarf-mammoth that once roamed the island, about the chalky diatomaceous earth that was visible in patches along the paths and the general history of human settlement: beginning with the Chumash native Americans, up to the sheep farmers and right into the present day (there is a single summer home on the island!). She introduced us to the geologic history of the island, and gave an accurate account of how and why the islands are home to over 100 endemic species (i.e. species that are only found there – no where else on Earth!).

As a biologist I am a stickler for accuracy when it comes to popular science. Many of my sofa-companions have had to weather me yelling at the TV during ill-worded Discovery Channel documentaries that present misleading, if not incorrect, information. However – Susan rocked it. There was only one statement she made that I disagreed with: that elephants evolved from mammoths. Actually mammoths and elephants are more like sisters or cousins than parents and children. Because the two groups co-existed in time it is misleading to say one evolved from the other. But this is a pretty minor, and given the sheer amount of information she presented to us, this was still an A+ performance.

If you get a chance to take a guided nature tour while on the island, do it!  Thank you Susan for helping us to better understand these beautiful islands!

Swimming

I won’t sugar coat it – the water is chilly. Even at the end of August on a day over 30 degrees C (90+ F). And the beach isn’t white sand either. If you want to sit on a beautiful warm beach there are plenty of other options in the LA area.

However, if you want to snorkel – this is the spot. Bring your own mask and fins, or rent them ahead of time. We rented a set for the day from Dive n’ Surf in Redondo, close to where my sister lives. In hind sight a wet suit might have also been nice, but really wasn’t totally necessary.

The rocks might not be great for sunbathing, but they make an excellent habitat for kelp, sea urchins and a number of fish. The most exciting sighting of the day for me was this camo-green fish, about 30-45 cm long. I am no marine biologist and can’t seem to figure out which species it is – perhaps you have an idea? Can you spot him in the photo below?

DCIM101GOPRO

My sister had never snorkelled before, and came out frozen and shivering like a chihuahua. Yet somehow, after that single afternoon in the water it seems every other sentence out of her mouth is “I wish we were snorkelling right now…”. It is the same feeling I had after my first time snorkelling in Kenya – which has led me to become an avid swimmer and diver despite a previous life-long water aversion. Her partner is already looking into diving certifications in their area. I think they’re hooked!

Diving

As soon as I got my mask under the water I immediately wished I could don a wet suit and grab a tank of compressed air. Santa Cruz has several well-known dive sites, and even at the non-dive site we were snorkelling at I can see why it is so DCIM101GOPROhighly regarded – the kelp and extensive wildlife were nothing short of enchanting. I wanted to float off into the abyss, exploring every nook and cranny.

Not convinced? Just google “Channel Islands diving photos” and try to not be impressed! Kelp forests! Sea lions! Bat rays! Harbour seals! Nudibrachs! And high-vis to boot!

There are a number of companies offering day trips out to the islands for diving. A few I came across are: Channel Island Dive Adventures and Eco Dive Center – though I’m sure there are plenty more. In addition I was referred to DiveBuddy.com – an easy way to access California dive clubs.

Kayaking

A number of people rolled off the boat and straight to the lines of kayaks, prepped for a day at sea. A quick google tells me day trips can be booked through a number of companies. Santa Barbara Adventure Company offers day kayak tours for $177, including transport to the island. Island Kayaking has a similar offer for a similar price. It also looks like this is an activity that often has Groupon offers.

If you want a little taster of what you may see on a kayak trip around Santa Cruz check out this recent video blog from David Webb at Across & Abroad.

Next Time?

I still can’t get over the stark white hills, winding trails, kelp forests viewed from 100 meters up and 2 meters down and the marine menagerie we saw on this day trip. And to think – I had LA pegged as nothing but smog and botox! None of that on Santa Cruz!

For starters: next time? Yes – there will be a next time.

Next time I will check out the dive tours around the island, especially if my sister and brother-in-law get their dive certifications. However, another day snorkelling would be just fine with me as well – though this time I would probably pack a wet suit.

It also would have been nice to have my DSLR camera along. The GoPro was my usual awesome toy to get some good footage both on land and the water. I just wish I had something better than a pixilated iPhone photo of the Channel Island fox we spotted!

And on that note, I will leave you with a pixilated Channel Islands fox, which is no bigger than a house cat:

A slinky Channel Islands fox: species on the rebound!
A slinky Channel Islands fox: species on the rebound!

And a beer for the ride home! Cheers! (And next time: MORE SUNSCREEN! Sunburnt lips are no fun).

Cheers to Santa Cruz & Island Packers! Happy Labor Day weekend!
Cheers to Santa Cruz Island & Island Packers! Happy Labor Day weekend!

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