Monday, September 9, 2013

Channel Islands California

Santa Rosa Island
I just finished up a 3 day trip to the Channel Islands Marine Reserve, owned by the US National Park System, with some parts of the islands also owned by the Nature Conservancy.

There are a number of approved concessionaires that take people on diving, snorkeling, hiking, and other types of adventure trips to the Channel Islands from Ventura and Santa Barbara. Our group consisted of about 25 people, two of whom were lost to us on the first day.

We boarded on Wednesday night, went to bed in our bunks, gently rocked to sleep until 4:00am when the engines started up and the boat pulled out into the deep ocean channel between the mainland and Santa Rosa Island.

I'm not normally prone to sea sickness but when my whole body was tossed up into the air, rolled back and forth, and almost thrown out of my second level bunk, I decided to get up. I felt a bit nauseous. Up on deck, at the top a heaving flight of stairs so steep it was almost a ladder, there were nine other passengers hanging on for dear life and/or puking overboard.

In my nylon nightgown, I was sweating from the heat below deck, and nausea. The cold air felt wonderful. I went around to the side of the boat and watched mountains of water come at us. The boat  was lifted up and then boom, down it went on the other side as the hill of salt water passed under us. I'm sure it wasn't as dramatic as it seemed in the darkness with just stars for light. I sat for a while next to a tall thin man who got up every few minutes to puke over the edge. After a while his wife came to sit with him. So I went back to the top of the stairs and sat with a woman who told me she was just trying to watch the horizon so she wouldn't feel so bad. The problem was, sitting down on the step like that, the horizon tended to disappear about every ten seconds as the boat rose up.

I was chilled and went back down to change clothes. Bending over to get my clothes was all it took to push me over the edge. I grabbed the plastic sack I'd brought my extra shoes in and let go. I felt better almost immediately.

Santa Cruz Island, taken at Prisoner's Harbor
Sometime later the loudspeaker came on and the captain asked if there was a doctor on board. That poor fellow I'd sat next to ended up going to the hospital via a helicopter. His wife went with him. Two down, how many more would we lose?

Sunrise found us at the island's pier. After the medical emergency was over, we had breakfast and then rode a little pontoon skiff over to the pier for a long hike. A volunteer naturalist met us for a four mile circular hike through Cherry Valley, named for a single and now long-dead cherry tree.

The islands are mostly sedimentary and volcanic rocks jutting up from the sea like a big curved spine. In some of the protected valleys there are scrub and poisonous oaks; stickery plants like sage and spiny grasses cover the rocky landscape.

Santa Rosa was once a cattle ranch. Probably not a very prosperous one, it was hard to see where there was any permanent fresh water source. The ranchers made more money by bringing over elk, deer, and wild pigs. They hosted hunters who paid a bundle to shoot trophy animals. Their ranch house and outbuildings are still on the island, and in use by the Park Service as housing and offices.

The park service bought the island about 25 years ago but let the ranchers continue with their operation for another 20 years. A few years ago, all the big animals were removed (shot) and the island has now returned to its former natural state with just mice, a few foxes, and snakes in residence. Some people in our group thought they saw a bobcat, but the naturalist said foxes were the top predators. We saw a lot of scat on the trails. They were eating berries and not many mice judging from the droppings.

Overhead a few hawks and some bald eagles round out the predator situation. The flora was thick and there wasn't much evidence of erosion. It may take a few more years but the islands now have an opportunity to continue evolving beyond their arrested development.

In the afternoon, we boated to a protected cove where we kayaked near steep cliffs and saw seals poking their heads up to take a look at us. Once in a while a pod of dolphins put in an appearance. My friend Shelley and I rented snorkel packages. I'd never done it and it took a long while to get used to breathing by putting my face IN water! By the time I tried on the snorkel, it was dusk and not enough light to see much other than a school of silver fish flash by.

We spent the night at that cove, gently lulled to sleep by the rocking, and were moved again early in the morning to a new place. There we kayaked for a long time, and close enough to rocks that we could smell the birds and animals perched on them. Beneath us were kelp forests where seals zoomed in and out of view.

Over the next two days we hiked around on Santa Cruz Island, much larger than Santa Rosa and full of caves created by a thundering serf. One cave is called Painted Cave and was so large the boat could actually fit inside of it. The captain drove us in for a look. We could hear seals barking deep inside. Then we moved to the next cove to anchor and took kayaks out into the rough waves around a large rock outcropping so we could go very deep into the cave to see the animals.

It was scary to go out into those large waves sitting on top of a sea kayak. Fresh water kayaks, you sit down in them, but the sea kayaks are like a big plastic shell with just an indention for your behind and places to brace your feet. It felt like it could tip over and dump us out any second, but the kayak just bobbed around on top of the water like a plastic bottle. Shelley had a lot of experience and she would yell "right" or "left", so I dug into the water with that side of the paddle. We made it over the waves and into the cave just fine. I'd have been positively terrified to do it alone in a one person kayak!

Inside the cave was deep and dark. A single shaft of light came in through the tube-like entrance, not enough to illuminate the interior. Some people had head lamps but they didn't have enough power to show us the animals on the rocks inside. All we could see were glowing eye reflections in the blackness. The smell and the echoing barks were both overpowering. The seals were clearly saying to us, "Leave, Leave!!".

In the cove where the boat was anchored, there were three shallower caves. The deepest one appeared to have a sloping back, like a small beach, covered with boulders. As Shelley and I got further into the darkness, a few of the seals on the rocks dove into the water and began the alarm. Those boulders suddenly came alive and hundreds of seals poured down the beach. The water churned with brown humps, tails and foaming spray.  I think we interrupted their mid-morning nap.

Another hike took us to a group of Torrey Pines, some of the rarest pine trees in the world. That sheltered area in the Channel Islands, and the Torrey Pines State Park near San Diego are the last strongholds of these old trees. It wouldn't take much of a fire to wipe them out entirely. The trail led up a steep hill, wound through the gnarly trees and then back down. Hardly 15 acres total, though a number of seedlings and small trees have sprung up on the edges of the grove since the grazing animals are now gone.

Our boat and kelp forest
Torrey Pines

View out the back when the boat was
inside the cave!

Can you spot the seal?

Little island fox safe behind a fence
Narrow stickery trail up from the cove

Ah.....silver ocean sunset

POST NOTE:  I've been informed by smart people with way more kayaking experience, that the "sea kayaks" we used are tourist kayaks, they're made for bobbing around on the ocean. Real sea kayaks have rudders and foot peddles, and you sit down in them like a traditional kayak. AND, the animals that barked at us were Seal Lions, not seals. Seals don't bark!!