San Miguel Island
San Miguel Island is the westernmost of California’s Channel Islands lying 45 nautical miles (nm) from Santa Barbara and is part of the Channel Islands National Park. San Miguel is the sixth largest of all eight offshore islands at 9,491 acres, including offshore islands and rocks. Prince Island is located 2,300 ft. off the northeastern coast by Cuyler Harbor and measures 35 acres in area. The island at its furthest extent is 8 miles long and 3.7 miles wide. The highest peak is San Miguel Hill, at 831 feet. Because of its location in the open ocean, it is subject to high winds and lots of fog. The cold, nutrient-rich water surrounding the island is home to a diverse array of sea life that is not found on the southern islands.
The island is a tableland of lush grasses and wildflowers, with 27 miles of jagged, rocky coastline dotted with sandy white beaches. The westernmost of these beaches, Point Bennett, is the only place in the world where up to six different species of pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) can be found. Pinnipeds (“fin-feet”, “winged feet”) or fin-footed mammals are a widely distributed and diverse group of semi-aquatic marine mammals comprising the families Odobenidae (walruses), Otariidae (eared seals, including sea lions and fur seals), and Phocidae (earless seals). Scuba diving and kayaking with these creatures is a truly unique experience.
San Miguel has some of the most spectacular scuba diving found anywhere off the coast of California. On a given day the water can be 10 to 15 degrees colder at San Miguel so proper equipment (7 mm wetsuit minimum or drysuit) is needed to enjoy this remote dive location. The topography at its offshore pinnacles makes a diver feel small. Mountainous pinnacles can go from 20 feet of water to 200 on some walls. More varieties of seals and sea lions can be viewed here than any other Channel Island. Protected coves, banks, offshore rocks and pinnacles make this a sought after destination for scuba divers. Weather protects this island from too much human visitation so patience is needed to dive here on a nice day. A nice day at San Miguel is about as good as it gets.
Weather, weather, weather. Anyone who sets out to enjoy a day of kayaking around San Miguel Island needs to understand that the weather at this remote island can change in a minute. Generally it would be considered a more advanced area to kayak but good weather periods do happen. The remoteness and wildlife at this island make kayaking so unique. Large seal and sea lion colonies are spread out along the shores. Many varieties seabirds call this home and Dolphins and whales are commonly sighted near shore. Special arrangements can be made on private charters for island to island kayaking. Advanced kayakers have found the downhill run in a Northwest wind to be invigorating. Attempting this should be done by only those who have the skill and endurance along with support vessel assistance supplied by Truth Aquatics on its multi-day liveaboard excursions.
There are several trails that traverse San Miguel island providing a variety of hikes. Many parts of the island are closed to protect wildlife, fragile plants, and geological features so hikes outside of the Cuyler Harbor beach, Cabrillo monument, and Lester ranch site are done with a qualified naturalist or Park Ranger. Longer hikes are available on Truth Aquatics multi-day liveaboard excursions to San Miguel. There is no pier on San Miguel island so all landings are done by inflatable skiff at Cuyler Harbor. Landing on the island can be an exciting experience as the surf can make the landing challenging. Truth Aquatics has developed a “launch line” procedure that has made this operation much safer for our passengers.
San Miguel Island does not receive protection from the open ocean as the other Channel Islands do from each other. Most of the time a strong northwest wind blows across the island and these winds typically exceed 25 mph and can surpass 50 mph. When strong high pressure is over the mainland, the winds often cease creating a surreal enviorment. On warmer days the fog will burn off only to have the strong northwest wind blow in additional fog from the open ocean. On foggy days the temperature will rarely exceed 55°F.
The National Park Service maintains two airstrips, a ranger station and a research station on the island. The Island is normally staffed by a ranger who enforces park laws, while also sometimes providing interpretive services for public visitors. The island also hosts scientists that study pinnipeds and manage the Island Fox captive breeding program that is conducted on the island. Volunteer interpretive rangers often fill in for regularly paid rangers due to budget deficits within the park. Park employees and researchers are flown to the island by Channel Islands Aviation. Public visitors are not permitted to fly in.
Archaeological research has shown that San Miguel was first settled by humans at least 12,000 years ago. Because the northern Channel Islands have not been connected to the adjacent mainland in recent geological history, the Paleoindians who first settled the island clearly had boats and other maritime technologies. Rough seas and risky landings did not daunt the Chumash who lived there in later times, nor did they deter the first European explorer, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, in 1542. It is also rumored to be his burial place (there is a monument there in his honor). Ranchers raised sheep from 1850 to 1948. One of the longest homesteaded Ranchers were the Lesters. A family of four that parted their way from the island during Pearl Harbor due to the dangers the war posed on them. The detailed information was written and published in a book called “The Legendary King of San Miguel Island,” by Elizabeth Sherman Lester. Later, the United States Navy used the island for a bombing range.
San Miguel is world famous for its pinniped viewing. In the winter, as many as 20,000 individual seals and sea lions can be seen at one time on Point Bennett, where they breed and where the pups are born. Other wildlife includes the island fox, a species that is found only on the Channel Islands. Spring and summer the skies are filled with sea and land birds. A geologic feature called the caliche forest attracts many people. This ghost forest was formed by caliche sand castings of plant roots and trunks. Today the plants are long gone, leaving behind the eerie stone replicas. San Miguel wildflowers are spectacular, due to the abundance of fog and moisture making it a photographer’s paradise.
Santa Rosa Island
Santa Rosa Island is the second largest of the Channel Islands and lies about 26 nautical miles (nm) from Santa Barbara. The island is nearly 17 nm long, 10.75 nm wide at the widest point, and 53,195 acres or 83.118 sq. mi. The highest peak is Vail Peak, at 1589 feet. It is a diverse island of grass-covered rolling hills, steep canyons, creeks, rocky inter-tidal areas and sandy beaches adorned with sand dunes and driftwood. The Chumash people who lived in the Channel Islands at the time of European contact called the driftwood wima because channel currents brought ashore logs from which they built tomols, a plank canoe.
In the 1970’s and 80’s scuba divers flocked to Santa Rosa to take advantage of the many species of game fish available. Talcott shoals, lying off the Northwest section of the island is a large plateau that offers various terrains for divers. The western section of Talcott becomes more dramatic in its topography and offers not only game divers hunting opportunities, but great photo opportunities as well. The wreck of the Aggie lays in 25 to 50 feet of water along a ridge that today is basically scattered steel beams and plate. The East End has a wonderful assortment of pinnacles that are covered in corynactis and clouds of fish. Santa Rosa Island is a transition island where the water begins to chill and you begin to see both cold water, and warmer water species combined.
Kayaking Santa Rosa Island can be challenging and should be attempted by experienced kayakers due to the quickly changing weather and currents that can occur at this island. The sandy beaches and cliffs are breeding and resting areas for sea birds and seals and sea lions. Exploring the island in this way offers a unique experience of seeing these larger marine mammals and seabirds.
There are several trail options for hiking Santa Rosa Island ranging from flat trails and roads to more those that are more rugged. The island has a variety of rare plants many of which are not found any place else in the world and the endangered Torrey Pine forest is a must see. Santa Rosa has several rare plants, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. It also is home to the endemic island fox and the spotted skunk.
A variety of Torrey Pine (Pinus torreyana var. insularis) grows on the island. The population of this endangered species is estimated at approximately 1000 trees. Physicist C. Michael Hogan postulates that the P. torreyana was first brought to the island from the Central Coast mainland by Chumash peoples using their plank canoes. The Island Oak (Quercus tomentella) is native to the island.
Flightless geese, giant mice and pygmy mammoths are extinct, while the island fox, spotted skunk, and munchkin dudleya (Dudleya gnoma) one of the six endemic plant species on the island, still live there. The island is home to one of only three known populations of Hoffman’s rockcress.
Archeological and paleontological sites are abundant on the island. In 1994, the world’s most complete skeleton of a pygmy mammoth (Mammuthus exilis) had been excavated; a dwarf species related to the Columbian mammoths. In 1960 archaeologists discovered humans remains dating back 13,000 years at Arlington Springs on Santa Rosa Island. These remains are among the oldest human remains in the Americas and were discovered by Phil C. Orr, curator of anthropology and natural history at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Orr believed the remains were those of a 10,000-year old man and dubbed them the “Arlington Springs Man”.
The Arlington Springs Man was later re-examined by Orr’s successor at the museum, John R. Johnson. Johnson came to the initial assessment that the Arlington Springs Man was actually the “Arlington Springs Woman”. Radiocarbon dating determined that the remains dated to 13,000 years B.C. making the remains potentially the oldest-known human skeleton in North America. The term “Arlington Springs Woman” was used at that time to refer to these remains. After further study, Johnson reversed his assessment in 2006, concluding that the remains were more likely those of a man, and the name “Arlington Springs Man” was again the more appropriate name.
The Arlington Springs Man lived on Santa Rosa at the end of the Pleistocene. His presence on an island at such an early date demonstrates that the earliest Paleoindians had watercraft capable of crossing the Santa Barbara Channel, and lends credence as well to a “coastal migration” theory for the peopling of the Americas. During the last ice age, the four northern Channel Islands, including Santa Rosa Island, were conjoined into Santa Rosa, a single island that was only five miles off the coast.
Santa Rosa Island was originally part of a Spanish land grant. The island was used as a sheep ranch during the mid-1800s by the More family. Then during the cold war the United States Air Force maintained a radar base on the island. In the late 1970s Mobil Oil Corporation was granted exploration rights on the island. Both explosive and vibroseis exploration methods were used. Extensive surveys and geological maps were made at that time. And finally in 1980, Santa Rosa Island was included within Channel Islands National Park. The island’s owners since 1902, ranchers Vail & Vickers of Santa Barbara, were opposed to inclusion of the island in the park. Vail & Vickers used the island for cattle ranching and a private hunting reserve. Vail & Vickers successfully lobbied to have the legislation stipulate that purchase of their land would be the highest priority of the Channel Islands National Park. The Vail & Vickers voluntarily sold the island in 1986 for the appraised value of nearly $30 million. The initial agreement to allow continuation of the ranching and hunting operation for three months was extended under a series of special use permits issued by the National Park Service. A lawsuit by National Parks Conservation Association in 1996 resulted in a court-approved settlement agreement, which included removal of all cattle from the island and phased reduction by Vail & Vickers of the non-native deer and elk by 2011.
Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island is the largest island off the continental United States. Located 23 nautical miles (nm) off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, the island is 22 miles long, from 2 to 6 miles wide, and is 96.507 sq miles. The scenic beauty of Santa Cruz is reflected in its many landforms including its two rugged mountain ranges. The highest peak on the island is Devils Peak, at 2450+ feet. Deep canyons, year-round springs and streams, plus 77 miles of craggy coastline cliffs, giant sea caves, pristine tide pools, expansive beaches, and a central valley are features of the unique island. The central valley splits the island along the Santa Cruz Island Fault with volcanic rock on the north and older sedimentary rock on the south. Lying directly on the boundary between cold northern and warm southern waters, this island hosts unique plant, animal, and marine communities representing nearly 1000 miles of coastline.
Diving at Santa Cruz Island is probably the most diverse of all eight Channel Islands. Being on the break of the warm southerly and colder northern currents creates marine habitat for many different species. The West end is quite different from the East end, and the South side is different from the North side.
The Northwest section of the island is volcanic with steep faces and large sea caves. The Southeast section is more sedimentary with large plateaus and thick kelp beds. Santa Cruz offers more places to find good diving during rough weather periods than any other island due to its size and many coves. Seals, sea lions, bat rays, and many schools of fish are common sights while scuba diving along this island’s shores.
Kayaking & SUP:
With 77 miles of craggy coastline cliffs, pristine tide pools, expansive beaches and giant sea caves, like the legendary Painted Cave, Santa Cruz Island has great kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding options for all levels of experience.
Kayaking Santa Cruz Island is as relaxing as it is invigorating. Paddle over beautiful kelp forests and California’s state fish, the bright orange Garibaldi. Cruz passed sea lions and watch overhead for the majestic bald eagle.
There are several hiking trails and roads that traverse the eastern portion of Santa Cruz Island that is part of the Channel Islands National Park. While visitors may explore this section, no hiking is allowed beyond the national park boundary onto The Nature Conservancy property to the West without first obtaining a permit. Landings onto Santa Cruz are either by pier or by skiff. Common landing areas include Prisoners, Scorpion, and Smugglers.
According to legend, Santa Cruz Island was named for a priest’s staff accidentally left on the island during the Portola expedition of 1769. A Chumash Indian found the cross-tipped stave and returned it to the priest. The Spaniards were so impressed that they called this island of friendly people “La Isla de Santa Cruz”, the Island of the Sacred Cross.
Archaeological investigations indicate that Santa Cruz Island has been occupied for at least 9,000 years. The island was home to the largest population of island Chumash people who developed a highly complex society dependent on marine harvest, craft specialization, and trade with mainland groups. The Santa Cruz Island Chumash people produced shell beads that they used for currency which formed an important part of the overall Chumash economy. Native villagers had no known contact with outsiders until the 16th and early 17th centuries.
Today, Santa Cruz Island is divided between The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service. The Nature Conservancy owns and manages the western 90% of the island; the eastern 10% is owned and managed by the National Park Service. In its vastness and variety of flora, fauna and geology, Santa Cruz Island resembles a miniature California. Geologists believe that the island never has been attached to the mainland.
Permanent and seasonal water sources, plus a number of microclimates, support over 650 species of plants and trees in ten different plant communities, from marshes and grasslands to chaparral and pine forests. Owing to millions of years of isolation, eight of these plants are “endemic”-they grow nowhere else in the world. Springtime is a patchwork of blooming annuals, sometimes seen from the mainland as bright splashes of color. Over 140 land bird species have been identified here. The Island scrub jay, (picture) a Santa Cruz Island endemic, is a living example of “gigantism,” whereby some island animals evolve to a larger form. This bird is one-third bigger and much bluer than the mainland scrub jay. Other animals, like the island fox and spotted skunk, tend toward “dwarfism,” growing smaller over the ages. Eleven other mammal species including nine bats, deer and harvest mouse, three kinds of amphibians including the pacific chorus frog, black belly slender salamander, and the Channel Islands slender salamander, five reptiles including the side-blotched lizard, southern alligator lizard, western fence lizard, western yellow belly racer and gopher snake, might be seen by visitors.
Bald eagles were once numerous on California’s Channel Islands but because of eggshell thinning caused by DDT and other factors, the last known successful bald eagle nesting in the northern Channel Islands was in 1949. By the 1960s bald eagles could no longer be found on any of the Channel Islands and the Golden Eagles replaced them and began hunting island foxes to a threatened status. After successful trapping and relocating of the Golden Eagles, the Institute for Wildlife Studies started a program in 2002 to reintroduce bald eagles to the Channel Islands funded by money from a $25 million fund to deal with the lingering effects of DDT dumped by the Montrose Chemical Corporation into the ocean near Los Angeles.
Between 2002 and 2006, 61 young bald eagles have been released on Santa Cruz Island. On March 17, 2006 wildlife biologists for the Institute announced that for the first time in over 50 years there has been a successful hatching on Santa Cruz Island. In April 2007, the Nature Conservancy announced another successful chick hatching. The chick broke free of its shell on April 13, 2007. The parents were one of the two nesting pairs who had returned to the island after making history the previous year. Both pairs were born in captivity. This second birth represented a turning point in the struggle to return the eagles to their former habitat on the island. Three nests have now been documented on Santa Cruz island as of the 2008 breeding season.
Anacapa Island is a small volcanic island located located 28 miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calfornia. The smallest of the northern Channel Islands, Anacapa was discovered by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542. In 1769 Spanish explorer De Portola had given the island the name “Las Mesitas” meaning Little Tables. Later in 1793 Captain George Vancouver rechristened the islands Anacapa, derived from the Chumash Indian word, “Eneeapha,” which means island of deception or mirage. The island is actually composed of three islets: East Island, Middle Island and West Island. Ocean waves have eroded the perimeter of the island, creating steep sea cliffs towering hundreds of feet in height and exposing the volcanic origins of air pockets, lava tubes, and sea caves. At the east end of the island a natural bridge has formed in the ocean. Forty-foot high Arch Rock is a trademark of Anacapa and the Channel Islands National Park. The highest peak is Summit Peak 2 on West Island at 930 feet.
Diving at Anacapa Island is known for warmer waters as it is at the southern edge of the Northern chain of Channel Islands that receive tropical currents from the south. Many species that are found at the Southern chain of Channel Islands can be found at Anacapa. Lush kelp beds, Garibaldi’s, brittle stars, giant black sea bass, leopard sharks, and sea lions are common sights while scuba diving.
Photographers enjoy the clear waters and many student divers get their first island dive in its temperate conditions. Anacapa Island generally has calmer conditions as it is further to the east of the prevailing Northwest winds generated off Point Conception. Because of its proximity to the mainland, Anacapa is visited by more divers than any other island in the Northern chain of Channel Islands.
Kayaking & SUP:
Anacapa provides everything a kayaker is looking for. Steep cliff faces, secluded coves, beautiful tide pools, and sea caves are among just some of the sights. Because of its small size, kayakers, as well as stand up paddle boarders, are able to see much of the island on a day excursion.
Landings are done at a pier in the landing cove at East Island. There is a staircase leading out of the cove up a steep cliff side that brings you to a figure eight-shaped trail system that is about 2 miles long. An interpretive trail guide is available on the island to interpret island resources. Middle and West Anacapa are not open to hiking as they are set aside for the island wildlife except for a small beach on the West islet called Frenchy’s Cove that can be reached only by boat.
Sea birds are the most conspicuous wildlife on the island. The largest breeding colony of the endangered California brown pelican is located on West Anacapa. Other sea birds include western gulls and several species of cormorants. The island’s rocky shores provide resting and breeding areas for California sea lions and harbor seals and pristine tide pools can be explored. Springtime brings colorful flowers, including the strange tree sunflower called coreopsis, a plant found only on the Channel Islands and a few isolated areas on the mainland.
On the night of December 2, 1853, the sidewheel steamer Winfield Scott running at full speed crashed into the rocks off Middle Anacapa in dense fog and sank. Invasive ship rats (Rattus rattus) are thought to have been introduced to the island from the wrecked ship. They had devastating consequences for the island’s seabirds and other native species, but were successfully eradicated in 2001–2002. With the rats gone, the number of rare Xantus’ Murrelets has increased to more than 80 percent in the last three years. This is one of many recoveries following invasive species eradications from the Channel Islands.
A U.S. Coast Survey team visited the island in 1854 and concluded that although the island’s position at the eastern entrance to the Santa Barbara Channel was a natural choice for a lighthouse “it is inconceivable for a lighthouse to be constructed on this mass of volcanic rock – perpendicular on every face, with an ascent inaccessible by any natural means.”
As shipping in the Santa Barbara Channel increased, the Lighthouse Board eventually did decide to place a light on Anacapa Island, but to limit the expense of building a station on the inaccessible island, an unmanned acetylene lens lantern on a fifty-foot skeletal tower was erected. Unfortunately on February 28, 1921, the steamer Liebre grounded on the east end of Anacapa Island directly under the light.
As approximately nine-tenths of all vessels trading up and down the Pacific Coast passed inside the islands of the Santa Barbara Channel, the American Association of Masters, Mates and Pilots petitioned for a proper fog signal on the island. Funds for what would be the last major light station to be built on the west coast were finally allocated in the late 1920s.
The construction of the station was carried out in two phases and commenced in the spring of 1930. A landing dock, a hoisting crane and roads were added first, and then work began on the various station buildings. A thirty-nine foot, cylindrical tower and a fog signal were built near the highest point on the eastern end of the island. Four Spanish-style, white stucco houses with red tile roofs were provided for the keepers and their families. Today there is a museum on the island, which houses the original crystal and brass Fresnel lens from the light beacon.