Channel Islands National Park was established in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter. The National Park upgraded and expanded the earlier Channel Islands National Monument established in 1938 by President Franklin Roosevelt. The Park protects five of the eight islands in the California Archipelago off the coast of southern California: Anacapa and Santa Barbara (which comprised the original National Monument), Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. The Channel Islands, which were never connected to the mainland and are separated from the North American coast by deep underwater trenches, are called the American Galapagos because of their wealth of endemic species (at least 145 species of plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet).
During the last Ice Age, when sea levels were much lower, the four northernmost islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa) were connected as one huge island south of what is now the city of Santa Barbara. At that time, the distance from the mainland was much shorter, allowing mammals as big as mammoths and as small as mice to cross to the island. Birds, currents, and winds carried seeds to the island. After sea levels rose with the melting of the huge ice sheets, many of the species on the islands were cut off from both the mainland and the other islands, evolving into distinct species and subspecies.
Humans have been present on the Channel Islands for at least 13,000 years. At the time of European contact (in the form of Spanish explorers and missionaries in the eighteenth century), the seafaring Chumash inhabited the northern islands. After the Chumash were forcibly removed in the early nineteenth century, the islands were ranched extensively until in the twentieth century their ecological importance came to be recognized and a campaign to protect them was ultimately won.
Sean and I had arrived back at Patrick’s apartment in Brentwood from Yosemite National Park in the early afternoon on Saturday, May 28. After we had showered and relaxed and sorted some of our gear, the three of us headed to Venice Beach to walk around, check out the beach, and ultimately have dinner.
Even though the marine layer was thick, robbing us of any chance of a sunset, it was warm. The neighborhood’s mix of hyper-gentrification and lingering hippy gritty beach culture was appropriate for the winding down of our trip to L.A.
Video: Brandon Hayes
Then we wandered back to the car past little Venice Beach bungalows under the silhouettes of palm trees.
Next morning, Sunday, May 29, dawned warm and thickly overcast with a persistent marine layer. We checked to make sure that the ferry to Santa Cruz Island was running that morning before heading out on the forty-five minute drive from Patrick’s place to the ferry dock at Ventura Harbor.
We arrived at 7:30 for our 8am ferry departure to Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island. The Island Packers building was a hubbub of activity with ferry passengers going to both Santa Cruz and Anacapa, plus those there for boat tours, plus campers and kayakers. On this Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, lots of folks were getting ready to enjoy their National Park.
At about a quarter to eight, we boarded our vessel, the Island Adventure. The boat was packed, but Sean, Patrick, and I found seats on a bench on the partially enclosed upper deck.
The crew gave us a safety orientation as the boat pulled away from the dock and began to navigate Ventura Harbor.
Once we were past the sea wall, despite the intense cloud cover, it looked like we would have extremely calm seas.
At about this point, early in the hour-long passage, I noticed some debris in my photos. I thoroughly wiped down my lenses, but the debris remained. Apparently it was debris and dust in the sensor compartment of my camera. I did the best I could to clean it out (after slightly freaking out), but ultimately I’d have to get it professional cleaned back home in Chicago.
As gray as it was, it wasn’t dismal. The sun was trying to burn off the marine layer. It was just taking its time doing it.
As we proceeded, the crew of the Island Adventure noticed a bunch of mylar balloons floating on the surface of the Pacific and promptly changed course to attempt to hook them and haul them onto the ship. They spoke to the passengers about how dangerous balloons are for sea life, which can ingest them and be poisoned or can get tangled in balloon strings.
Shortly after the hooking of the balloons, the Channel Islands came robustly into view, Santa Cruz ahead of us and Anacapa off to port.
Also to port was a large oil drilling rig. Drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel dates back to 1896, making it the site of the world’s first offshore drilling. In 1969, a platform in the channel experienced a blowout that led to a major oil spill, which affected the California shoreline and all four of the northern Channel Islands. The spill in fact ranks as the third worst in US history after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The Santa Barbara oil spill sparked massive public outrage and was a major contributor to the creation of Earth Day in 1970 and the passage of major environmental legislation in the 1970s.
Video: Sean M. Santos
As we approached Santa Cruz Island, the boat was joined on its voyage by a school of Common Dolphins that paced us for a time.
Soon Santa Cruz Island resolved into steep cliffs and slopes covered with grasses and scattered chaparral. Santa Cruz is the largest of the Channel Islands at 61,972 acres. Oriented east-west, it is twenty-two miles long and varies from between two to six miles wide. Scorpion Anchorage, our destination, is near the island’s eastern tip.
The Scorpion Anchorage area was already busy with boaters and kayakers as we approached.
As the crew anchored the boat and prepared for our arrival, we were given an orientation by a charming woman who talked about some of the flora and fauna of the island and warned us about the dangers of getting too close to cliff edges: “If you were to fall from the island’s cliffs, it would be a search and recovery operation, not a search and rescue. And please watch your children. Once, several years ago, I grabbed a child who was slipping over the edge of a cliff and I almost went over myself. I won’t do that again.”
She also offered to lead a nature walk to Potato Harbor overlook.
Because the Scorpion pier had sustained damage during a winter storm, we had to disembark via two inflatable motor boats, which could take six passengers at a time. Those who were on a kayaking trip went first to maximize their time. We were lucky enough to be standing near the door to the outer deck where we were to board the boats, so we were on the first half dozen trips to the beach at Scorpion.
While we waited in line on the deck, though, we were able to check out some of the sea life like crabs and cormorants visible from the boat.
The Island Packers crew was swift, and soon it was our turn to step down into the boat and be motored over to Santa Cruz Island.
Once we were ashore, we walked up to the Visitor Center, which had been created in the old two-story ranch house at Scorpion Canyon.
The grounds were littered with the original ranch implements dating from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth.
Inside the ranch house, Sean and I stamped our National Park passports, and the three of us explored the restored ranch house rooms on the ground floor.
The ranch was founded in the 1880s by Justinian Caire, and his descendants, the Gherini family, ranched portions of the island as late as 1997 when the final piece of property transferred to the National Park Service. The rules for behavior posted in Italian in the camp dining hall (above) are as follows:
In the dining room it is forbidden to:
- scorn your soup
- throw away nutritious food
- mess up the table
- make noise at the table
- waste the bread
- feed the dogs
- annoy your companion
After exploring the ranch house, we had a snack before setting off on a hike to Potato Harbor Overlook.
We didn’t linger in the vicinity of the ranch for too long, however, because we preferred to hike at our own pace and were not particularly keen on joining the guided hike that was quickly assembling. Such a large group, we thought, might scare away wildlife.
So we set off, heading west up the bottom of Scorpion Canyon.
We were most keen to see some of the island’s very special endemic species, chief among these were the Santa Cruz Island Fox and the Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay, both found only on Santa Cruz Island.
Low and behold, we’d only gone about twenty paces when we saw both the Island Scrub Jay and the Island Fox! As a pair, they represent the two different sides of how island species tend to differ from their mainland counterparts. The Santa Cruz Island Scrub Jay is larger than the California Scrub Jay found west of the Sierra Nevada. The Island Scrub Jay’s beak is longer and larger, and its legs are longer, likely to account for the variety of its perching habitats on the island.
The Island Fox, on the other hand, is significantly smaller than its mainland cousin. It is about the size of a house cat, is not nocturnal, and pays little heed to humans. The first one we spotted was busy hunting mice near the ranch.
After the little fox disappeared into the grasses, we continued on toward the campground area.
The trail led through a portion of the campground, which was nestled in a Eucalyptus grove that had been planted by the ranchers to provide a source of fast-growing wood. The grove is retained for its history rather than its ecology since the Eucalyptus is not native to North America and was imported from Australia.
As we walked along, we spotted another Island Fox, which we watched patiently wait to pounce on a mouse. And then we spotted another little fox.
And then Sean, walking ahead of Patrick and me, began to capture one of his trail-view videos when a little fox trotted down the path looking for mice to have for lunch. Sean was able to capture a wonderful video.
Video: Sean M. Santos
If you look closely, you’ll notice that there appears to be something wrong with the little fox’s right eye, but it doesn’t seem in the least bothered by it.
We’d been on Santa Cruz Island for barely half an hour and we’d already seen multiple endemic species and had been bewitched by the little foxes. Thrilled, we set off on our hike in earnest.