Channel Islands home to endemic species

The dense, rocky, rugged outline of Santa Cruz Island emerged on the blue horizon, unveiling itself gradually through the fog, as our ferry chugged along the unruly waves of the Pacific. After sailing from the mainland Ventura harbor for more than an hour, the destination was in our sight. I was looking forward to my adventures on Santa Cruz Island, one of the five islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park. The sharp wind blowing across my face as I stood on the upper deck of the ferry, accentuated the cold I felt on my skin.  But I drew my warmth from the singular experience of sailing in a vast ocean, under an expansive, open sky.

The Channel Islands National Park is 25  miles off the coast of California. It has been called “The Galapagos of North America” as it is home to hundreds of endemic species found only on these islands due to its isolation from the mainland. Even now there are no human settlements on the islands. But its surrounding waters are home to seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales, starfish, sea anemones and many other species. The waters are wild and untamed, offering plenty of adventures, including kayaking, cliff jumping, snorkeling, scuba diving, and hiking along solitary beaches or the ocean-hugging cliffs.

The stunning Santa Cruz shoreline

Santa Cruz has some of the Channel Islands’ best water access, with great beaches that include a sea cave-studded shoreline. It has several hiking trails, providing a unique mix of island and ocean views, as far as the eye could see. I was looking forward to the prospect of kayaking into these sea caves,  braving the ocean currents and exploring the breathtaking biodiversity around.

Pods of dolphins

This image shows pods of dolphins leaping out  of the Pacific Ocean, off the Santa Cruz coast near the Channel Islands (Photo courtesy: Lalit Kumar)
Pods of dolphins frolic in the ocean, off the Santa Cruz coast near the Channel Islands (Photo courtesy: Lalit Kumar)

We set sail early in the morning, from Ventura harbor, nearly 70 miles north of Los Angeles. Barely 20 minutes into the ocean, the clear, blue sky on the horizon gave way to foggy and windy weather as the ferry gathered speed. I was enjoying the expanse of ocean all around me, when suddenly the boat lurched in the waves; I gripped the hand-rails tightly. The skipper’s voice rang all-around the ferry, “There are pods of dolphins ahead, look out!” I leaned over the railings, peering into the gray ocean waters expectantly, when suddenly a pair of dolphins jumped out of the water ahead, heading in our direction.

Within a few minutes, the water all around us was filled with pods of dolphins, frolicking in and out of water in an amazing display of  well-choreographed moves. The skipper had slowed down the speed of the boat, allowing us to gaze and wonder at nature’s amazing creations. The gray water of the ocean had now turned into a theatrical, immersive performance by cavorting and gamboling dolphins, strutting their stuff in a show of spectacular pageantry. I later learned from the skipper that e migrating humpback whales, blue whales and orcas also frequent this part of the Channel waters.

After more than an hour, we were cruising past the breakers and gently rocking buoys dotted with seagulls and seals at the Santa Cruz Island harbor’s mouth. We pulled into a pier known as Scorpion Anchorage.

Kayaking into the sea caves

This image shows Lalit Kumar kayaking alone in the ocean to the Channel Islands sea caves. (Photo courtesy: Lalit Kumar)
Lalit Kumar kayaking to the sea caves. (Photo courtesy: Lalit Kumar)

I got my kayak and paddling gear from the Santa Barbara Adventure Company, which runs kayaking tours. As I pulled my kayak into the blue Pacific and paddled away from the shore, I was suddenly struck by the sheer vastness of the open waters ahead of me. Just a few yards into the ocean, thick branches stemming from the kelp forests underwater got into a tussle with my paddles, as I pushed away the water. I was greeted by a few colorful fish now and then; I also probably spotted the bright orange garibaldi heart-shaped tail fin, the official marine state fish of California and native to this region.

This image is likely a selfie taken by Lalit Kumar as he kayaks into the Painted Cave. (Photo courtesy: Lalit Kumar)
Lalit Kumar kayaking into the Painted Cave. (Photo courtesy: Lalit Kumar)

I guided my kayak parallel to the rocky island cliffs, in search of the sea caves. The waves near the rocks came crashing in, as the wind picked up speed. I soon realized paddling in choppy ocean waters against the wind takes some serious work, and navigating into narrow passageways between the treacherous rocks and sea cliffs takes some decent paddle maneuvering techniques. 

Soon we crossed into a large sea cave after braving the waves and winds. It was a sight to behold! Called the Painted Cave due to its unique and colorful rocks, it is one of the largest in the world. Waves breaking on the rocks of the cave sharply accentuated the howling of the wind, creating an operatic rhythm in Nature’s own theater. I was spellbound! 

As we headed back from the cave, the wind seemed to have picked up significantly. At times I wondered if my kayak would flip over. But I let the thought pass. I had life vests on and I was not new to kayaking.

Hikes reveal dramatic coastline and ocean vistas

It was early afternoon by the time we headed back to shore and changed into dry clothes. I started on the trail near the visitor center, called Cavern Point Loop Hike. A short, steep hike later I was treated to the most gorgeous open vistas of the ocean. Looking toward the land on Santa Cruz island, the gentle, undulating terrain seemed tailor-made for wild exploration. I could spot a few unfamiliar plants on the way, which I later learned were ice plants and the dudleya, a succulent native to the Channel Islands. Soon I was standing at Cavern Point – a rocky outcrop on the sea cliff, and atop the sea cave that I had kayaked to a short while back. The views from this vantage point were gorgeous and I soaked it all, in this wild solitude.

I continued my hike along the North Bluff Trail to the Potato Harbor overlook, taking in some dramatic coastline views of this island, and vast sweeping vistas of the ocean — a resplendent blue in the brilliant, afternoon sun. With no phone coverage on the island and no other distraction, I absorbed the magic of every moment.

The perfect foil to our urban chaos

It was late afternoon and as the sun began to cast longer shadows on the ground.  It was time to head back to the Scorpion Anchorage and catch the last ferry back. As I boarded the upper deck of the ferry and we headed into the deep waters of the ocean, I caught myself gazing back, yearning for the island. The ferry pulled further along, rolling and heaving in the waves. The outline of the island gradually melted away in the dusk. The sky was lit up in fiery, orange hues.

As the sun set over the horizon, darkness rolled in and the water turned gray again. We were heading back to Ventura but my mind was still back on the island, reliving the adventures of the day in the ocean wilderness. It was a perfect foil to the busy chaos of our urban lives.

Lalit Kumar works in the Bay Area's tech sector and enjoys writing prose and poetry. He published “Years Spent : Exploring Poetry in Adventure, Life and Love” in April 2022. Contact Lalit on Instagram...