For my wife and I’s fifteenth wedding anniversary we wanted to do something fun, memorable, and somewhat relaxing. A couple of years ago we discovered our love of Ventura, a coastal city in Southern California. We appreciate the cities laid back and relaxed atmosphere, state beaches, the food (The Lure Fish House being probably our all time favorite restaurant), unique shops in the downtown district, and the pier.
On this visit to Ventura we decided to mix things up a bit. We stayed in our first AirBNB, Casa al Mare Ventura, a peaceful little cottage in a quiet downtown neighborhood. The outside of the cottage was completely secluded; surrounded by lush vegetation, a koi fish pond, with a deck for sitting. The inside had many of the comforts of home, and provided a comfortable place to spend the evening after a day out.
The highlight of our trip was a day trip to Santa Cruz Island, one of eight islands that make up the Channel Islands, and one of five islands managed as part of Channel Islands National Park. These islands were home to the Chumash as far back as 13,000 years ago, with 148 identified village sites, eleven of which are found on Santa Cruz Island. Santa Cruz had the largest population of island dwelling Chumash who created an advanced civilization, utilizing shell beads for currency, and trade with mainland tribes. The Chumash remained on the island into the Mission Period, until they were removed by the Spanish and forced into the Mission system.
After the Chumash were removed around 1822, ranchers devastated the pristine island, introducing invasive plants, and feral animals. At one time Santa Cruz Island had the largest population of feral sheep in the world, with estimates of a population over 21,000. Once the National Park Service acquired land on the island in 1997, they began the long process of removing all feral sheep, relocating them to the mainland.
Today the entire island has some form of protection, whether it be the National Park Service, or the Nature Conservancy. Together they share the same ideas of long-term protection of the islands fragile resources.
To get to Santa Cruz Island, we chartered a ride with Island Packers, a local tour company that provides boat service to all five of the islands that have land managed by the NPS.
Our boat set sail at 8am for a sixteen mile, hour and a half ocean excursion to the pier of Prisoners Harbor (in 1830, thirty convicts were dropped off here to “do their time.”). It wasn’t long after we pulled out of Ventura Harbor that we began to see seals, and dolphins frolicking freely in the water. The temperatures quickly plummeted when the boat reached higher speeds in open water, thankfully we came prepared with hoodies and our Columbia jacket shells, allowing the both of us to continue enjoying the ride across the vast open water.
As we approached Santa Cruz Island, our captain announced that we’d be making a quick stop at Potato Harbor to release two seals that had been rescued and rehabilitated. Rescuers produced two dog carries with the seals inside. The beautiful sea-dogs appeared happy to be returning to their home at Potato Harbor, as they jumped into the ocean and disappeared into their natural habitat.
From Potato Harbor to Prisoners Harbor it was another fifteen minutes out. As we neared Prisoners Harbor, two humpback whales were spotted spouting off a short distance from the shore. The boat came to a halt, and we watching with anticipation for them to resurface, but in the five minutes that we sat there, they never did.
Once on shore we struggled to find trails that were accessible to the public, much of the land surrounding the harbor is owned by The Nature Conservancy, who appear unfriendly in regard to visitors. So we opted to hike a couple of miles along a graded dirt road which gained elevation quickly, and provided some stunning views overlooking the eastern portion of the island, and the ocean. Along the way we had the opportunity to view a staggering amount of the islands fascinating flora (see flora images at the bottom of this post) and fauna, many of which are endemic to the islands.
One such encounter was with an Island Fox that came trotting down the road with no fear, walking right past us before disappearing into some bushes. This little guy is endemic to six out of eight of the Channel Islands. They are the smallest of all foxes in North America, typically, the head-and-body length is 18–20 in., shoulder height 4–6 in., and the tail is 4–11 in. long. With less than 135 remaining, in 2004, the Santa Cruz Island Fox was added to the endangered species list. Due to their protection, the popular has rebound to 1,750 in 2015.
As we returned down the steep grade we noticed that one of the humpback whales that we had briefly seen while pulling into the pier had returned. With a couple of hours remaining of our brief stay, we opted to relax along a rocky alcove overlooking the ocean. Our humpback friends proceeded to put on a fascinating show for the duration, breaching on several occasions.
Sadly our adventure had to come to an end, but not before a pod of hundreds of common dolphins approached our boat just off of the shore of Santa Cruz. To say that our experience on the island was anything short of magical is an understatement.
My only warning to those looking to visit Santa Cruz Island is to stay for several days. The few hours available to you on a day trip are barely enough to get your feet wet.
Flora of Santa Cruz Island