Channel Islands National Park is the least visited in the National Park system with only about 250,000 visitors a year - and the majority of the visits logged are to the visitor's center on the mainland. Far fewer people venture out to the islands themselves, making them a great place to get away. Two of the islands, Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands are readily accessible from harbors in Ventura and Oxnard. Having previously visited Anacapa Island, I elected this time to make the journey to Santa Cruz Island. The skies were gray and overcast and my plans to photograph the seascapes by moonlight were dashed, but the trip still exceeded my expectations with some thrilling encounters with rare wildlife.
Although not formally part of the park, a channel crossing by boat is mandatory, and is often as interesting as the island visit itself. The Channel Islands are located near a confluence of warm and cold currents and are near a steep undersea cliff which results in an upwelling of nutrient-rich waters - perfect for plankton blooms upon which complex food chains can be built. In addition to the normal dolphin and seals, the morning trip to the island included an electrifying encounter with what we believe was a large basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus swimming slowly along the surface. These slow moving animals can be up to 30 feet long and are surpassed only by the more famous whale sharks in size. They are an extremely rare sight in the Channel - our boat's captain had never seen one before after many years of crossings. I also was lucky enough to see a giant ocean sunfish swimming at the surface.
Once at Santa Cruz Island itself, I disembarked with the rest of the passengers and went on a short hike led by Claire, a park ranger and naturalist, who pointed out various species that exist on the Channel Islands and nowhere else. There are over 140 of these plant and animal species that have survived extinction or evolved away from their mainland progenitors in the isolation of the island ecosystems (some people think the Channels are the "North American Galapagos" for this reason). Among them, I was keen to see the endangered island fox (a miniature fox about the size of a house cat) and the island scrub jay (an example of island gigantism, a species that has evolved to be much larger than its mainland counterpart).
Hiking from our landing at Scorpion Bay to Potato Harbor along the bluffs overlooking the sea, I was fortunate to see one of the small foxes in the grass and snapped some photos. These small canines were on the brink of extinction due to predation by non-native Golden Eagles, which filled an ecological niche vacated by native Bald Eagles that were killed in the 1960's by DDT poisoning. Now that the Island is under control of the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy, their population has rebounded and there may be as many as a couple hundred of these animals on Santa Cruz island, which is somewhat larger than Manhattan. This being a dry year, Claire explained to me that the blue jays were not in their usual haunts and I left without seeing one of them, but I plan to return to the islands soon for another try.
Photos from my trip
Bonus link: Bald Eagle Nest Webcam