So Friday night, a bunch of us Cal Poly Scuba Club kids all piled into cars with our gear and headed south to Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara. We were on our way to an exciting weekend of boat diving from The Conception in the northern Channel Islands. After finding the right boat ( a couple of us accidentally checked in on the wrong boat, oops!) we loaded on our dive gear, picked out our bunks and decided to walk to State St. and get a bite to eat. Thai food definitely hit the spot. mmm yellow curry and jasmine rice….
We spent the night on the boat, which, by the way, was huge! There was a galley, large back deck, staircase to a large shower room and two hot showers, bathrooms between the galley and the back deck, and bunks beneath the galley. The bunks were much larger than other bunks I had seen. I picked a top bunk, which came with a pillow and a blanket.
The boat left the dock around 4 am and arrived at Santa Cruz Island around 7 am. I woke up around 6:30 am from the constant rocking of the boat, (good thing I took Dramamine the night before!) a little unsure of exactly what time I needed to get up, eat, and get suited up for the first dive. Here’s a tip for future Truth Aquatics divers: When the boat engine stops, it is time to wake up.
The galley always had food for the hungry diver. There was a hot breakfast, various pastries, and fruit. Everyone on the boat had a labeled mug, and hot water was available all day along with tea, hot cocoa, and coffee.
The sun was shining brightly but the wind was bone chillingly cold. Everyone was freezing as we got ready and geared up to jump in the water. Our first dive spot was Fry’s on the inner side of Santa Cruz. The water was worse than the windy surface! It was a nippy 49 degrees underwater, but there was life everywhere. While the visibility wasn’t at its best (only about 10-15 feet or so), the kelp forest was beautiful and the sunlight sparkling through the kelp made the dive magical.
Odd as it sounds, I saw my very first jellyfish underwater. I’ve seen them plenty of times washed up on the beaches, but underwater jellyfish are majestic, graceful creatures.
The site was so good that we decided to do our second dive at Fry’s too. After a quick break of running to the hot showers and warming our numb toes, we jumped back into the water. Once again, we were not disappointed. My favorite part of the dives was when we would swim through kelp and the water would suddenly be dark from the thick kelp on the surface. Then, a few seconds later, sunlight would stream through and light up the water once again.
In between dives, we had the unique experience of witnessing a bald eagle perched on the cliffs above us. It was just sitting proudly, watching the happenings below. When the bald eagle flew away, I could see what looked like blue tags on his wings. It was just a reminder of how rare a sighting like that is. Santa Cruz island is home to an incredible group of animals.
After a delicious lunch of ribs, mashed potatoes, peas and corn, we moved to one last dive site. This site was a tad warmer than the other site, but we stayed shallow where there was more fish, and for the hunters, more opportunity for a good catch. It was teeming with gharibaldi, perch, lobster, and many starfish, urchins, and nudibranchs covering the rocks beneath the kelp.
Coming back to Santa Barbara was the hard part. The wind was so strong that there were swells of 8 to 10 feet splashing on the boat and rocking it around.We all sat on the back deck for a while, and eventually the constant rocking caused a few to run to the side of the boat. It was quite an adventure getting home! Four hours of rocking back and forth up and down massive waves made me appreciate solid ground.
It was a wonderful weekend for diving!
7. Spotted Sandpiper
8. Western Meadowlark
The northern Channel Islands’ waters are home to diverse marine life, incredible geological features, and great diving. But the islands themselves also offer some fantastic adventures.
While 2,000 plants and animals call the Channel Islands home, there are over 145 species that are only found on the Channel Islands. Just exploring the wildlife on the islands is reason alone to go visit.
To get to the northern islands, you need to book a boat from Ventura or Santa Barbara. Once there, you can hike, bird watch, camp, and backpack.
The terrain varies on all of the islands; some islands have sharp cliffs, and others flat plains. Anacapa has magnificent hiking, though only East Anacapa has trails. The best part about hiking Anacapa is the opportunity to see the last permanent lighthouse built on the west coast. The trail to this is a little under a mile roundtrip. My favorite part of Anacapa is the sloping hills painted white from the abundance of birds inhabiting the island.
Santa Rosa has many trails, and offers intense, long hikes for those up for a challenge. For a more leisurely hike, try hiking at Water Canyon Beach. It is relaxing and beautiful! If you are looking for a long hike, though, I have heard that the East Point trail is extremely tiring (about 15 miles) but extremely worth it!
On San Miguel Island, National Park Service recommends that you hike Cuyler Harbor Beach, Cabrillo Monument, and the Lester Ranch Site. All other hiking requires a park ranger. To arrange a hike, call (805) 658- 5730
For an awesome camping experience on the Channel Islands, Santa Cruz is the number one island that I have heard people talk about. Here you can camp at Scorpion Ranch. Make sure you have reservations before you go. When you get off the boat, you hike about a half-mile to the campground. There is often a ranger at the campground that can provide an overview of the island and take you on a short nature walk. The boat comes twice a day to Santa Cruz, so plan your camping trip accordingly.
If you would like to try camping on the other islands, there is a campsite on the east side of Anacapa, at Water Canyon on Santa Rosa, and above Cuyler Harbor on San Miguel.
While visiting the Channel Islands, you can find tide pools, go bird watching (talk to the rangers for information), go hiking, or just lose yourself in nature.
I love riding the train up and down the California coast. After grabbing an ocean facing window seat, I can sit back and enjoy the spectacular view for hours. One of my favorite parts of the trip is from Ventura up through Santa Barbara, where, on a good day, I can look out over the sparkling ocean and see some of the Channel Islands. Most of the time I see Anacapa and Santa Cruz, but there are eight islands total, four located just off the central coast!
Anacapa, Santa Cruz Island, Santa Rosa Island, and San Miguel Island (listed in order from south to north) and shown at left are the four islands located a few miles off the central California coast. These islands are totally remote, and there is no transportation to the islands other than by private boats. You can book boats to the islands from Santa Barbara, Ventura, or Oxnard. On the islands, the only mode of transportation available are kayaks, and walking/hiking. They are all surrounded by preserved waters and part of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Santa Cruz is about an hour boat ride from Ventura, and the largest and most accessible island from the central coast.
So what exactly can someone do on the islands? Popular activities include hiking, backpacking, camping, kayaking, and my personal favorite, scuba diving. If you go to Santa Cruz Island and you are a kayak enthusiast, be sure to visit the world’s deepest and largest sea cave, Painted Cave.
The most popular places to kayak are near Scorpion Beach. The water is home to a diverse animal life, and water entry is easy on the beach. Note, though, that these waters are unpredictable, and can be dangerous, so to ensure a more safe and enjoyable kayaking experience, you can kayak with an authorized park guide. As for San Miguel and Santa Rosa, sea kayaking there is for skilled kayakers prepared for hazardous conditions. To get kayaks to the island, contact the boating companies. Most will carry kayaks to the islands for an extra fee. For more information regarding weather, contact the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary’s Internet Weather Kiosk.
While I have yet to set foot on the northern Channel Islands, I know the waters well. That is, I know the under waters well. Scuba diving here is absolutely spectacular. The water is clear and the kelp forests are teeming with life. Lobster diving is popular in the unprotected areas, especially at Santa Cruz. When I go diving here, I love booking with Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara. They have three boats, Truth, Vision, and Conception.
Their boats are designed just for diving, and the while the crew takes care of you with delicious food and free tank fills, the Channel Islands waters provide the rest. I have seen bat rays, nudibranchs, horn sharks, octopus, dolphins, lobsters, sea lions, and a colorful array of fish swimming around rocky pillars in between a graceful backdrop of kelp. I have never surfaced from a dive disappointed. Some of the best spots (conditions permitting) are San Pedro Point, Little Scorpion (where I did my certification dive!), and Three Sisters on the backside of Santa Cruz. These dives were all relatively shallow (40-60 ft) and were absolutely breathtaking.
The waters of the Channel Islands are home to a beautiful group of marine life, so jump in and see what you can find! Don’t forget your camera!
The waters along the central coast are not just for kayaking or going to the beach. Scuba diving is a popular activity and a unique way of exploring the ocean.
I love scuba diving the central coast because it offers an aquarium view with fish swimming through forests of swaying kelp. The only difference is that there is no glass window. You are a vulnerable visitor in the midst of wild, unpredictable nature.
For those just beginning scuba diving, there are Sports Chalets further south (in the Ventura area) that offer free introductory classes the first Saturday of the month. All you have to do is fill out a simple form before you get started. In this course, a certified instructor reviews the basic rules of scuba safety, the components of scuba equipment and how to use the equipment. After the quick introductory lesson, you jump in the pool and try scuba diving with all the gear on! When I went, they had hula hoops and underwater toys set up in the pool to play around in. It’s a fun, free way to see if scuba diving is an activity you want to take up.
Once you decide to “jump in the water,” you need to take a scuba certification course and get the necessary equipment. There are two major scuba certification agencies, SSI and PADI. As a PADI certified diver, I recommend going with this agency.
There are lots of places to rent or buy equipment from and get your certification from. Of course, Sports Chalet is always an inexpensive price, but I have found that the best quality equipment and service is found at the small scuba shops.
If you live near…
try Dive and Sport
San Luis Obispo:
try SloDivers (note though, that they only offer diving, not instructor courses)
There are also many levels of scuba certification, starting with Open Water Certification.
After Open Water, you can go on to get Advanced Open Water, Rescue Diver, and Divemaster. There are also many specialty courses offered with PADI.