November 22, 2008

Vol. 20 — Santa Cruz Island, Channel Islands National Park, CA

Santa Cruz

Until today, I’ve mostly just been winging it on this trip… I hadn’t made plans to occupy my time (or I had and the plan fell through as at Paso Robles) or spent much time beforehand locating points of interest. On the other hand, the national park here, or rather off the coast of here, is the only reason I’m in Ventura to begin with, besides the opportunity to ride as many different named lines as possible, and this leg allowed me the opportunity to travel on the Coast Starlight.

I took a taxi this morning from my hotel to the Ventura harbor offices of Island Packers, with whom I’d arranged passage to Santa Cruz Island. Santa Cruz is only one — albeit the largest — of five islands that make up the whole park, but more than one in a day would be impossible, and this was the charter that made most sense for my schedule.

Arriving an hour before our scheduled departure, I figured only I and a few other travel lunatics would be present, but in fact there were some dozens of Boy Scouts in uniform — two troops — milling about the dockside, kicking, pushing, teasing and all the other sorts of things boys of that age do when given a moment or two of idleness. I can’t deny I felt pang of nostalgia for my bygone days of Scouting and all the places we spent a night or two (or so) in tents, and sometimes not in tents at all. As far as that goes, days like this — weather free, if you catch my meaning, and of moderate temperature — are not very prominent in my memory. Mostly I recall digging out or tamping down a place for a tent in the snow, building fires as large and wastefully as we could get away with, and having snowball fights we’d later regret as the night threatened to freeze our wet clothes solid.

I would have loved to have spent some time on the island camping myself, but for reasons of time and the expense of outfitting myself with much of the equipment I’d need (a larger pack, a new tent, camp stove…), not to mention the need to carry around all that gear for my entire 30 days for only a couple days worth of camping, I just couldn’t justify it.

The boat, a large craft with two decks and two hulls (or one hull with two immersed segments separated by 10 feet or so… I haven’t the ship-lore to identify the design more accurately) made it’s way through a maze of private and commercial craft in the harbor, cleared the piled breakwater, and then really started cruising, fast enough that I heeded the warning about lost hats, and stuffed mine into my pack. Fast enough too that quite a few passengers could be seen adding additional layers in the chilly, humid morning air.

We began passing a series of oil platforms that are every bit the eyesore you expect them to be, but perhaps a necessary evil, and as the ships captain pointed out (over the loudspeakers, he added a good deal of fun commentary), the pipelines and submerged support structure end up making a pretty good artificial reef for the local sea life, so they’re not all bad. It was while passing these that we began seeing the ocean change character. On the surface, one could swear it was raining, but for the cloudless sky and the fact that no rain was falling on the boat. This turned out to be small fish, millions of them, breaking the surface just long enough to create a ripple, but not be seen (or not by me anyhow). Apparently the meeting of cold currents from the north and warm currents from the south in this place causes an upwelling of nutrients from the sea floor, causing particular richness in the sea life.

The evidence of this was presented gloriously a few minutes later when we happened across one of the most fabulous sights I’ve ever witnessed. Dolphins — thousands of them — filled the ocean around us, cresting, leaping, twirling underwater and surfing both the bow and stern wakes of the ship. Seeing a show at an aquarium or park is something everyone should experience, certainly, but it’s just nothing in comparison to a whole ocean full of wild dolphins at work and play.

We took a serpentine route amongst the pod, looping around in order to maximize our ability to experience the sight, and from the way the animals would swim close and play in the wakes, I guess it was to their benefit too.

After that, I felt like I’d already more than gotten my money’s worth without having even set foot on the island, but I passed a lovely day there nonetheless, hiking overland through dry grasses and occasional little groves of cedar, enjoyed lunch on a promontory three or four hundred feet above a pretty little little cove, the sheer walls of which proclaimed their geology in a riot of whites and reds and echoed back the sound of the crashing waves far below.

In the afternoon, back at the anchorage and well enough exhausted from 7 miles of hiking, I laid down on a little patch of sandy grass, rolled up a spare sweatshirt for a pillow, and dozed to the sound of the incoming tide, rushing through the rocks that dominated the “beach” there.

We set off on return to the mainland with a much reduced manifest, having left behind the 70 or so campers, around four, which is very nearly evening these days. In a stroke of nearly unprecedented luck (we’re told by the crew), we find the dolphins almost exactly where we left them this morning, but beginning to make their way west, leaping across the setting sun, occasionally flopping onto their backs, every bit as energetic as they’d been in the morning.

Dolphins at sunset

It’s become quite cool in the night, and for the first time on this trip I need to put on my jacket and gloves as we cruise back to the distant lights over a sea of cotton candy pinks and purples.