The northern Channel Islands: an aquatic escape close to home

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!

The four northern Channel Islands

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.

Painted Cave at Santa Cruz; photo by mikebaird

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.

Truth Aquatics' Fleet, from the Truth Aquatics website

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!

Happy islanding!


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