Island Packers Excursion to Channel Islands by Bonnie and Bill Neely

On an overcast and chilly day in late May we boarded our Island Packers all day boat trip to Santa Cruz Island, about 20 miles out from Oxnard/Ventura, California. The five Channel Islands are protected as a National Park and a National Marine Sanctuary and an International Biosphere. Never part of the United States Mainland, the five islands which show above the great Pacific Ocean are part of one land mass pushed up by the movement of plate tectonics thousands of years ago but then partially covered by the waters from melting after most recent Ice Age. These islands were inhabited by the Chumash Indians, and human remains 13,000 years old have been found there. The Channel Islands are sometimes referred to as the ”United States Galapago,” and have species of flora and fauna found nowhere else on earth, and each island is different in nature.

We had visited Anacapa Island with Island Packers on our last trip to Oxnard It was magical to see the seabirds nesting right on the ground beside the walking path as we hiked the beautiful island covered with flowers. We were unsure what we would experience at Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the five islands and the only one on which people are allowed to camp.

2   whale watching

From both Channel Islands Harbor and Ventura Harbor Island Packers has a variety of excursions to the various islands and for whale watching. We left from Ventura after checking in with their office, where we could buy souvenirs and any needed items for the trip and get lots of helpful tips, maps, etc. If you choose to kayak, or SCUBA dive, or have guide service when you reach the island you must make arrangements ahead of time with Island Packers or other providers they suggest. You can arrange your permits for the Back Country Camping at the National Park Reservations 1 877 444 6777, but you must take everything you need including water, food, etc., because there are no concessions on Santa Cruz Island. The National Park service has rangers on each island for maintenance and for emergency help and evacuation, if necessary. Although the campground has typical park toilets and some drinking water, everyone must bring their own water. Some of our fellow travelers were bringing all their gear and kayaks for camping there, and Island Packers staff was very helpful with the loading. There are snacks, beer, water, and soft drinks available for purchase on board and clean restrooms (“heads”). The staff is knowledgeable, helpful, friendly, and excellent in their on-board guidance and information.

3   enormous whales

About 10 miles out the Captain announced, “We are fortunate for the sighting ahead of us, and we will stop to watch this rare and exciting event taking place right here!” We saw seabirds swooping down and soaring back up and at first saw nothing else until the captain directed our attention to the whales breeching, jumping and diving. He explained that we had happened upon a group hunting party and the whales were circling the creel and fish below and pushing them to near the surface. We watched for an hour as the captain kept the boat in just the right position for best sightings. Orcas, seen in this area only about four to six times each year, jumped and showed their gigantic bodies, and humpback whales shot their huge masses into the air and U-turned back into the sea again, showing their uniquely patterned flukes as they went down. Soon hundreds of dolphins and seals joined in the feeding frenzy and all of us on board had a photo frenzy…just hoping we could snap fast enough to capture a real image of such an amazing sight! It was MAGICAL! We felt so very privileged and so happy the Captain would stop for us to see nature in its own realm and experience such awe. Whales migrate through this area during many months of the year, traveling to Alaska to feed and back to South America to give birth. Whale sightings are frequent.

4   foxes

We arrived at Santa Cruz Island and spent several hours with a National Park volunteer who led us on a very informative hike and explained the various plants and animals there. The island had been a ranch for several decades and livestock and non-native plants had been imported, upsetting the natural balance. Now the ranch buildings serve as the on-site National Park headquarters and scientists have worked diligently to re-establish the native plants and protect the native animal species, which had been in danger of dying out. We saw the pretty little foxes, which have no predators and are therefore fearless. They ran around comfortably almost like kittens. We hoped to see the native blue jay which is nowhere else on earth, but it was elusive. We did see many other birds, especially when we hiked to the tall cliff overlooking the sea, where birds dived for their food that lives amidst the kelp forest in the clear water far below us.

5    kelp forest below

Those who kayak can explore the sea caves and see many species of fish all around the island, which has protected waters for six miles, so that many oceanic species come here for safety and recovery from the abuses and poisons of the human-polluted open waters all over the world. Kayakers are encouraged to have a professional guide because this is a dangerous sport in open ocean. SCUBA divers from the boat below the cliff were able to see many varieties and species large and small.

Before taking this trip we visited the Channel Island National Park Visitor Center at Ventura Harbor Marina. The explanatory exhibits and the film are excellent and well worth an hour or more to familiarize yourself with these special islands so well protected and interesting.

6   return trip dolphins

This wonderful day of enjoying truly wild nature and beautiful scenery came to a close too soon, and our only regret was that the wild flowers, abundant in February, were not in bloom. We boarded the last boat back to leave at 4 p.m. To our great thrill we had traveled toward the mainland only about a half hour when we saw another wondrous site: hundreds of pairs of dolphins were jumping out of the water and then diving down into it, over and over in another feeding frenzy, and we saw one more humpback whale. What a glorious day we will never forget! Book your trip with Island Packers as the first and best part of any Southern California holiday! Be sure to contact Oxnard Convention and Visitor Bureau at 1-800-2-Oxnard; for all your fun in this terrific part of California.