San Nicolas Island
San Nicolas Island is the most remote of California’s Channel Islands lying 78 nautical miles (nm) South by Southeast from Santa Barbara. The 14,562 acre or 22.753 sq mi. island is currently controlled by the United States Navy and is used as a weapons testing and training facility. The island has a small airport and several buildings. Landing on the island is strictly prohibited and one of the offshore water areas is restricted from transiting or anchoring. The island’s water area is divided into three sections, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and these areas are rotated with special military operations. Landing on the island is prohibited as is kayaking close to shore.
Truth Aquatics travels out to San Nicolas island ocassionally during the summer months to dive the exotic Begg Rock and some of the island’s nearshore reefs. Begg Rock is a small rock lying almost 8 miles to the west from the island and it is one of California’s most pristine dive locations. This is open ocean diving so wind, swell, and currents can make this a difficult area to scuba dive. When the conditions are right, this dive will not be forgotten. Shear walls covered in corynactis anemones paint this dive in a rainbow of colors. In the fall the island itself is a popular lobster diving area during season. Fewer trips are scheduled out to San Nicolas because of the unstable weather. It is one of those places that when it’s good, it’s great, but you need to be willing to take chances getting there.
No kayaking is available due to a mandatory 300 yard distance from shore regulation.
No island hiking available as landing is prohibited.
The most famous resident of San Nicolas Island was the “Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island”, called Juana Maria; her real name was never known to anyone on the mainland. She was left behind (explanations for this vary) when the original inhabitants, the Nicoleños, were moved to the mainland. She resided on the island alone for 18 years before she was found by Captain George Nidever and his crew in 1853 and brought back to Santa Barbara. She died seven weeks later, her system unprepared for the different nutritional and environmental conditions in central California. Her story was the basis for Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Medal-winning 1961 novel Island of the Blue Dolphins.
There is little ecological diversity on San Nicolas Island. The island was heavily grazed by sheep until they were removed in 1943. Overgrazing and erosion have removed much of the topsoil from the island. Despite the degradation, three endemic plants are found on the island: Astragalus traskiae, Eriogonum grande subspecies tamorum, and Lomatium insulare.
The dominant plant community on the island is coastal bluff scrubland, with giant coreopsis, Coreopsis gigantea and coyote brush, Baccharis pilularis the most visible components. The few trees present today, including California fan palms, Washingtonia filifera, were introduced in modern times. However, early written accounts and the remains of ancient plants in the form of calcareous root casts indicate that, prior to 1860, brush covered a portion of the island.
There are only three species of endemic land vertebrates on the island; the island night lizard, Xantusia riversiana, deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus exterus, and island fox, Urocyon littoralis dickeyi. Two other reptiles, the common side-blotched lizard, Uta stansburiana, and the southern alligator lizard Elgaria multicarinatus, were at one time thought to be endemic, but an analysis of mitochondrial DNA indicates that both species were most likely introduced in recent times.
Large numbers of birds can be found on San Nicolas Island. Two species are of particular ecological concern: the western gull, Larus occidentalis, and Brandt’s cormorant, Phalacrocorax penicillatus, both of which are threatened by feral cats and island foxes. The Navy is attempting to remove the cats in order to protect the birds’ nesting areas.
Santa Barbara Island
Santa Barbara Island (639 acres) is 1.67 miles across at its longest point and lies 73 nautical miles (nm) Southeast of Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of all of the California Channel Islands. It is the southern-most island in the Channel Islands National Park and like most of the Channel Islands; it can be seen from the mainland on exceptionally clear days usually in winter. The highest peak on the island is Signal Hill, at 634 feet. While the island is not a volcano it is composed primarily of Miocene volcanic rocks (basalt) interbedded with marine sediments. The steep wave-cut cliffs of its shoreline indicate that this is one of the younger Channel Islands. It exhibits at least six marine terraces; evidence of repeated tectonic uplift and subsidence (called porpoising). Arch Point, on the north-east shore of the island is a 130 ft. arch caused by wave erosion of fault weakened rock. Offshore, there are two named rocks, Shag Rock off the northerly shore (1 acre), and Sutil Island off the southwest end (12 acres). Santa Barbara Island boasts diversity in its habitats, with a few narrow rocky beaches, six canyons, and the badlands area. It is much like Anacapa Island in that it is a haven for sea birds. The steep cliffs and isolation from mainland predators provide safe breeding sites for thousands of sea birds.
Santa Barbara Island is known for its large rookery where you can spend hours diving with sea lions. Photographers get more opportunities to photograph these animals up close here than any Channel Island. The playful, curious pups will pose and frolic in front of a diver’s lens as long as one can stay in the water.
The famous “Arch” is a dive to be remembered at Santa Barbara Island. The top of the reef just breaks the surface at low tide and the bottom of the arch lies in 40 FSW. One of the more unique underwater arches in the world it makes the perfect backdrop for photographers. In addition to the Arch, there are many offshore pinnacles that host shear walls and some of the largest clusters of purple hydrocoral found anywhere.
Lush kelp beds make this island a good location for spear fisherman. Calico bass, white sea bass, yellowtail, and an occasional tuna are among the types of game fish that can be found in the waters surrounding this island. As with all Channel Islands, lobster divers make this a prime destination during season.
Santa Barbara Island can be some of the best scuba diving found offshore but if conditions are rough there are not many areas to seek shelter. Because of its small size, ocean swells can wrap around the island, so planning a trip is weather dependent.
Similar in many ways to Anacapa Island, kayaking Santa Barbara Island offers the perfect setting for this water sport. On calm weather periods it is conceivable to circumnavigate this small island. Weather can be a factor, so attempting this trip is best done on one of Truth Aquatics live-aboard trips where a support vessel is in contact should someone in the party become too exhausted to complete the journey. Once completed, it is a round trip kayaking adventure you will never forget.
Hiking on Santa Barbara Island will provide you with one of the most remote island hiking experiences of any of the Channel Islands. Because of the steep cliffs of its shoreline, the first stage of the trail is steep, but just beyond that you will find 5 miles of hiking trails with gentle rolling hills, beautiful overlooks and breathtaking coastal views.
The first European visitor to the Channel Islands in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer, made no mention of this island. Sixty years later, the island was named by Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino, who visited the island on December 4, 1602, the feast day dedicated to Santa Barbara. In December 1934, the factory ship California spenta week anchored off Santa Barbara Island, processing whales caught by her two steam-driven whale catchers.
Santa Barbara Island is home to a large sea lion rookery and seabird nesting colonies. It is also home to the largest breeding colony for Xantus’s Murrelet, a threatened seabird species. Xantus’s murrelet is listed as vulnurable, because so much of their breeding takes place on such a small and isolated island. Spring rains bring out the flowering plants, such as the tree sunflower, the endemic Santa Barbara Island live forever (Dudleya traskiae), shrubby buckwheat, sea blite, and an annual poppy. There is a visitor contact station/museum on the island, with exhibits, dioramas, and murals of the natural and cultural resources.
Santa Catalina Island
Santa Catalina Island is a rocky island located 90 nautical miles Southeast from Santa Barbara, California. This island’s close proximity to Los Angeles has transformed it into a popular tourist destination. The island is 22 miles long and eight miles across at its greatest width. The highest point on the island is Mt. Orizaba 2,126 feet. Most of the island is owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy.
Catalina is known for its calmer, clearer, and warmer waters. Even though Catalina is the most populated dive site of any other Channel Island; it is still sought out by scuba divers around the globe. Lush kelp forest, garibaldi, yellowtail, kelp bass, white seabass, giant black sea bass, leopard sharks, blacksmiths, opaleyes and many more surround this island. Photography and sightseeing are the main activities but free divers enjoy the possibilities of spearing yellowtail and white seabass. Truth Aquatics makes this destination part of its itinerary on the southern islands liveaboard dive trips mostly during the summer months.
Kayaking & SUP:
Catalina Island offers many kayaking as well as stand-up paddle boarding opportunities. Solidified volcanic ash cliffs drop into blue pacific waters with several sea caves located along the shoreline makes this island a kayakers dream. Playful sea lions, healthy kelp beds and temperate conditions are reasons this island has become so popular. Truth Aquatics only runs kayaking and paddle boarding excursions to this destination by private charter because of its distance from Santa Barbara.
There are many hiking trails along Catalina Island. Beach walking is allowed to anyone but a permit is required for any back country travel. Permits can be acquired through the Catalina Island Conservancy.
The Island is home to five native land mammals: the Island Fox, a subspecies of the California Ground Squirrel, the Santa Catalina Island Harvest Mouse, the Santa Catalina Island Deer Mouse, and the Ornate Shrew. The Catalina Conservancy is working to restore bald eagles to the island with several chicks hatching in 2007. Bald Eagles were edged out by the invasive Golden Eagles that threaten the native Island Fox. DDT, which was used before as a pesticide, softened the shell of the bald eagle egg which made it harder for the egg to reach its hatching and thus the populations dwindled.
A herd of American Bison supposedly first imported in 1924 for the silent film version of Zane Grey’s western tale, The Vanishing American, still roam the island. Over the decades, the bison herd grew to as many as 600 individuals. In recent years the Conservancy initiated a scientific study that determined that a herd of between 150 and 200 would be good for the bison, and ecologically sound for the island. Although the bison are not native to the island, they comprise an important role in the cultural fabric of Catalina. Therefore, the Conservancy has no plans to remove all the animals from the island.
People have been living on Catalina Island for 7,000 years. These inhabitants have a rich and varied history ranging from Native Americans to the Spanish Pimungans, hunters and smugglers to ranchers, miners and military occupation. Today the island and its warmer waters have been developed into a vacation destination with about one million tourists visiting every year.
San Clemente Island
San Clemente Island is the southernmost of all eight of the Channel Islands and is located 113 nautical miles (nm) from Santa Barbara. It is 21 nm long and is 4-1/2 nm across at its widest point. The U.S. Navy acquired the island in 1934 and it has been owned and operated by various naval commands. More than a dozen range and operational areas are clustered within a 60-mile radius of the island. The Commander-in-Chief, Naval Forces, Pacific is the major claimant for the island, and Naval Air Station, North Island is responsible for its administration. It is the Navy’s only remaining ship-to-shore live firing range and is the center of the integrated air/land/sea San Clemente Island Range Complex covering 2,620 nautical miles. The U.S. Navy also uses the island as an auxiliary naval airfield. The main runway 23/05 is used for carrier training by the Navy as well as the United States Coast Guard. Pilots that use this airfield find it to be one of the most demanding airbases in the United States as it is known for its high winds and dangerous terrain that surrounds the runway. The airfield is also home to the United States Navy SEALs training facilities located north of the runways.
Diving conditions at San Clemente Island are known for the clearest, warmest waters of all eight Channel Islands. Located in the southern most region of California this island receives the warmest waters from the tropical currents from the south. Giant kelp beds, schools of fish, coral banks, and shear walls make this a diver’s paradise. Waters in the summer can reach over 70 degrees Fahrenheit and photographers flock to this island for some of the best wide angle photography available in California.
Most of the prime scuba diving is located at each end of the island. The East end is more protected and offers pinnacles, shear walls, and protected shallow kelp covered coves. The West end is more exposed to the Westerly winds and swells but has some of the more prolific areas found off California. 9 fathom reef (actually comes up to 6 ½ fathoms) is a rocky structure with shear walls covered in purple hydrocoral. This is an open ocean diving location and is swept by currents and swells so diving this area can be tricky. Once dove, it is never forgotten.
Because of the military presence at the island, kayaking can be enjoyed near the boat only. As any Channel Island, lush kelp beds, volcanic rock formations, and sea lions make kayaking well worth the effort. Generally kayaking is done during one of Truth Aquatics regularly scheduled liveaboard dive trips.
No island hiking available as landing is prohibited.
Archeologists have found traces of human occupation on the San Clemente Island dating back 10,000 years, a remarkable figure for an island 55 nautical miles out to sea, but consistent with results on other Channel Islands. Later inhabitants left trade materials from the northern islands and from the mainland, including Coso obsidian from the California desert. It has not been established what tribe the recent inhabitants belonged to although the Tongva, who are well attested from Santa Catalina Island, are the most likely candidates. The Chumash people who occupied the northern Channel Islands may have influenced the inhabitants.
The island was named by Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino, who spotted it on November 23, 1602, Saint Clement’s feast day. It was later used by ranchers, fishermen, and smugglers during the 19th century and into the 20th century. In the 1920s and 1930s the factory ships Lansing and California anchored off San Clemente Island, processing blue and fin whales, among other species, caught by their steam-driven whale catchers.
The San Clemente Island Loggerhead Shrike is an endangered species that the Navy is taking steps to protect. The San Clemente Island Fox and Island brodiaea wildflower is endemic to this island. Feral goats roamed the island for centuries, reaching a population of 11,000 in 1972 when their effect on indigenous species was realized. By 1980 the population had been reduced to 4,000 and a plan for shooting remaining goats was blocked in court by the Fund for Animals, so the goats were removed with nets and helicopters.