Channel Islands National Park Wildlife Viewing Overview

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Channel Islands National Park
Channel Islands National Park (Getty)

San Miguel Island - Point Bennett
As you approach the westernmost tip of San Miguel Island, you start to hear a low rumbling that might be mistaken for distant traffic if you weren't 26 watery miles from the nearest road. That sound is actually the chatter of more than 30,000 sea lions and seals-the largest assembly of pinnipeds in the world. The hike to the Point Bennett overlook is a challenging eight-mile haul (each way), but the sight of all those California sea lions, northern fur seals, harbor seals and elephant seals never disappoints.

A combination of perfect ocean conditions makes this such a popular home for sea lions and seals: Cold and warm currents mix to create nutrient-dense waters, underwater kelp forests support an abundance of sea creatures, and the 27-mile stretch of isolated sandy beach is ideal for basking, which just happens to be the activity of choice among this crowd. The area is protected from boat traffic and other human interference. Even the hikes to the overlook are restricted to ranger-guided trips (contact the park visitor center for details: 805-658-5730).

West Anacapa - Frenchy's Cove
Tidepooling at Frenchy's Cove ranks high on the list of Channel Islands bests. The broad land/sea transition zone that stretches along the coast supports a diverse neighborhood of intertidal animals, including thousands of colorful anemones, urchins and sea stars. The rest of the west island is off-limits to visitors, in part to protect the endangered California brown pelican population.

I recently learned that mussels close their shells when they're above water so they can seal in enough moisture to last them until the next high tide. Must admit, I'd never given mussels much thought before, except when there was a garlic-butter sauce involved. But that knowledge made me give all of the tidepool critters a closer look. They're certainly a tough bunch. They have to be, in order to survive both underwater and when exposed to air and direct sunlight. It's worth noting that it's illegal to remove any of these tidepool-dwellers from the island, for eating purposes or otherwise.

Santa Barbara Island
Welcome to seabird central, the itty bitty island with the inviting ocean cliffs that make nesting murrelets and quite a few others feel right at home. Start down any of the island's six miles of trails, and you're bound to spot some cormorants, gulls and pelicans en route. Eleven seabird species nest here overall, in addition to the 14 land birds, three of which are endemic. Not impressed? Consider this: The thriving bird population was brought back from near annihilation that came as the result of many years of ranching and farming. Now you can hardly take three steps without hearing the fluttering of wings overhead.

Where to Learn More
Before you head out to the islands for an up-close look at the wildlife, it's a good idea to sit in on one of the park's interpretive programs. Weekends and holidays, you can hear Tidepool Talk at 11 a.m. or Interpreting the Language of the Park (talks on varying topics) at 3 p.m. The programs are held at the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center in Ventura: 1901 Spinnaker Dr. For info call 805-658-5730.


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