Channel Islands National Park

The Channel Islands Experience

Insider's tip: The very front of the boat is where you're least likely to get wet and/or seasick on the way to the Channel Islands. I learned this the hard way, during a trip to Santa Cruz Island on the smaller of Island Packers' two boats. I don't usually get seasick, but the water was really choppy, and my seat in the back of the boat left me inhaling more diesel exhaust than fresh air. As waves crashed over the port side of the boat, drenching everyone on the deck, it took all my strength to hang onto the railing as I heaved my breakfast overboard.

While I was busy feeding the fishes, those with the foresight to stand in the front of the boat were treated to a much more pleasant experience. The edges of the waves that were dumping on the rest of us sprayed them with a refreshing mist; to the side of the boat, dozens of dolphins rode the surf, leaping in sequence from wave to wave. That's what an introduction to the Channel Islands should look like: sparkling surf, playful marine life, and a total absence of regurgitated Cheerios.

Once on land, I reclaimed control of my stomach and shifted my attention to the purpose of my visit: wildlife watching. More than any other island in the chain, Santa Cruz is the place to scope out interesting critters. The biggest of the islands, it is home to more distinct species than any of the others. The specifics, for whoever's keeping score: 140 land birds, 11 land mammals, three amphibians, and five kinds of reptiles. Then, of course, there are all the seabirds, sea lions and seals that didn't make the official count because, technically, they don't live on the island.

My first target was the Santa Cruz Island scrub jay, which can be found nowhere in the world but Santa Cruz Island. Bigger and deeper blue than its mainland cousins, it's the only long-tailed, blue-colored bird in the area-good news for me, since bird identification was a brand new hobby.

Finding it didn't take long. From the dock at Scorpion Bay, I walked past the campground on a wide trail that climbed the western ridge to a place called Potato Harbor. I was pushing my way through some neck-high grasses when I saw a streak of color whiz overhead. Deep blue? Check. Long tail? Check. My first scrub jay ID? Check. It was almost too easy.

By the end of the hike I'd logged 11 species: six land birds, two seabirds, a lizard, a sea lion, and something small, fast and furry that may have been a deer mouse. Not bad for a beginner. For the boat ride home, at the advice of boy scout troop leader who has earned my eternal gratitude, I stood at the front of the boat and did just fine.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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