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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Sea Caves and Kelp Forests of Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island cliffs west of Scorpion Harbor, with Anacapa in the distance

Absolute dark above and below, behind and to the sides. The only light, and it glowed strong, came from the narrow entrance to the Santa Cruz Island sea cave, some 30 feet behind me. The kayak rocked gently as waves washed into the cave, traveled to the back, and broke quietly against what sounded like a small beach. I feathered the paddle and turned myself about, to look out the entrance.

It felt good, being sheltered within this basaltic rock that had erupted out of the sea floor off the California Coast in the Miocene, 20 million years ago. Protected. I liked the sound of the ocean lapping quietly against the rock all around me. I liked the dark. It all—especially the quiet—reminded me of being in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, on a snowy November weekday five years ago. As the flakes began to fall about me, I sheltered within the burned-out cavity comprising half the trunk of a tree 25 feet wide and 200 feet tall. Sitting there within a creature over a thousand years old, munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, alone on the hilltop as I watched the snow drift down outside, I also felt sheltered. Safe. Part of something that had been going on for a long time.

But the best part of the many sea caves along the edge of Santa Cruz Island off the coast of southern California is emerging from them into the daylight. The world seems to explode around you. Oh yes, the sky is that gorgeous blue, isn’t it? The ocean’s surface dances green in the golden sunlight. White gulls and brown pelicans sail past you in the air. And there is Anacapa island, jutting to a knife-edge ridge five miles to the east. How splendid it all is.

This was the morning of our second full day on the largest of the five islands comprising the Channel Islands National Park. Because the wind was tame, we paddled west from Scorpion Harbor along the cliffs early, to ensure we weren’t battling the often-fierce afternoon wind to get home. The volcanic cliffs were dotted with sea caves, and I happily explored five of them that morning. Occasionally the low tide made entrance sketchy. I had my wetsuit on, so flipping the kayak on some of the barely-submered rocks blocking access wouldn’t expose me to the full brunt of the chilly waters. The kayaks were sit-on-top, so getting back on wouldn’t be too difficult. Still, I’d prefer not to go into the drink. I dithered at the entrance to the first cave of the morning, telling myself I wouldn’t do it, even as I crept closer and identified the best routes. Then I rushed in on a wave, and enjoyed the well-lit cave.

My second cave was lower-roofed, darker, and quickly split into courses to either side. Much too narrow for my kayak. I listened for a while to the groaning sounds coming from each tributary, then decided it was all a bit unnerving and paddled out.

My buddy Al and I had taken Amtrak from our Northern California homes down to the Delta and then the length of the San Joaquin Valley to the south. From Bakersfield a bus completed our journey, to Ventura along the Santa Barbara Channel. The next morning we had picked up our rental kayaks at the harbor, carried them (OK, dragged them) a hundred feet to the pier, and boarded the morning Island Packers ship to Santa Cruz Island. An hour and 20 miles later, zodiacs ferried us and our gear to the rocky beach at Scorpion Bay, where we splashed ashore.

The campground was small and primitive: 25 sites, a few potable water spigots, and pit toilets. But it was full of energy, as 50 students from a private school in Santa Barbara were spending 3 days there. The kids were well-behaved, but perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the privilege of being introduced to the wonders of sea caves 60 years earlier in their lives than my current introduction.

The Santa Barbara Bight off the east-west-oriented California coast below Point Conception features the collision of cold waters from the California Current to the north with warm waters from the California Countercurrent to the south, producing the swirling eddy of the Santa Barbara Gyre. Diversity of marine life is high in the Gyre, as it includes creatures from each regime. Representing the north are the Giant Kelp forests to either side of the beach. We snorkeled there the afternoon of our first day, after kayaking sea caves to the east in the morning, me again in my wetsuit.

Like the sea caves, this was my introduction to kelp forests. Giant kelp are anchored to the sea floor by holdfasts, and the stems reach 15 to 40 feet up toward the surface and its life-giving sunlight. Fronds of 18 to 24 inches branch off the stems, the whole plants waving back and forth incessantly with the waves. Swimming through the kelp bed, you’re never free of the touch of the fronds, which after a while struck me as a bit claustrophobic. But I was busily examining the fronds, on which nudibranchs, snails, and various sea creatures are wont to occur. Unhappily, they’re mainly present in the night, and there was no way I was going to go night-snorkeling in that thick forest of waving, clutching plants.

Fish there were, though, nearly as abundant as in Hawaii. Though I saw none of the famous bright red adult Garibaldi’s, the juveniles of the species, red with blue spots and lines, were everywhere. Opaleyes were also common, a type of algal-feeding sea chub with a yellowish spot high on each side of its olive-green body.

There were also lots of sheephead, at least the juveniles and females, exhibiting the typical narrow shape of its wrasse family (also common in Hawaii). These carnivores (eating molluscs, urchins, and lobsters) all begin life as females, with a single large male patrolling his “harem.” When the male disappears for whatever reason (old age, predation), the largest female begins to experience “gonadal remodeling,” develops testes producing male hormones, and within several weeks to a month becomes the male of the group.

Don’t try this at home.

But the highlight of my snorkeling was the 4-foot wingspan Bat ray I swam over in 12 feet of water. He was slowly vibrating his “wings” over the sandy bottom, pushing the sand away to reveal the molluscs and crustaceans living there. As my heart began to beat somewhat more rapidly, I reminded myself that his teeth were flat and built for crushing (though the base of his tail does have a stinging structure). Maybe ten minutes later, still marveling at the Bat ray, I noticed movement just to the left of my mask, and a juvenile Bat ray slowly swam right in front of me, maybe a foot wide, his two little “wings” gracefully beating up and down as he swam out of sight in the kelp. Charming.

There are eight Channel Islands; the northern five are in the national park (the southern ones include Catalina and San Clemente). Though never connected to the mainland, during the height of the Ice Age, when abundant glaciation lowered the ocean level several hundred feet, the four largest islands were all connected as one land mass 70 miles long and four to 10 miles wide, this island of Santarosae being only five miles from the Ice Age edge of the continent.

As mammals and birds crossed the narrow Ice Age separation, evolution produced changes in the newcomers down the ages, some (mammoths, island foxes) becoming smaller, some (deer mice, scrub jays) becoming larger. Toward the end of the Ice Age, another newcomer arrived: voyagers plying the Kelp Highway along the coast of North America from Asia, the first humans. There is evidence of humans from 13,000 years ago (a shin bone), and abundant paleontological sites of early humans from at least 8,000 years ago.

The early humans discovered a North American Shangri-la. A huge island with abundant sea life along its miles of twisting shoreline, large enough and close enough to also feature most of the mainland plant and animal life as well. These arrivals became the Chumash native-Americans, a prosperous and thriving culture that adapted well to the resources so richly at hand. The invention of sturdy yet swift plank canoes (tomols, often of redwood) permitted them to become thriving traders with the mainland, specializing in the production of shell beads constituting the trading currency of southern California peoples.

Not even Shangri-la lasts forever, of course. After at least 8,000 years of continuous and sustainable cultural and material prosperity, European explorers burst upon this thriving Chumash world. In 1521 Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo landed on the islands (which had, with rising sea levels, now become separated into today’s five islands in the north). More Spaniards arrived throughout the 17th century, along with Russian fur traders, and George Vancouver toward the end of the 18th. The Europeans brought not just guns and swords to decimate the Chumash, but also voracious livestock to degrade the native plants and animals. Most importantly they brought exotic diseases, including measles, which killed more Chumash than anything else.

By 1822 the last of the pitiful, bewildered Chumash were forcibly removed from their homeland of 8,000 years and settled in the mainland’s Missions, there to toil and obey the black-robed priests of a strange new religion.

From the earliest encounters, the Europeans decimated not just the Chumash, but the fur-bearing mammals (sea otters, sea lions, seals) as well. They introduced sheep, cattle, and pigs onto the islands, as well as their European plants. Santa Cruz Island on which Al and I camped became the site of sheep ranches and vineyards. By the middle of the 20th century landowners began to cede their rights to The Nature Conservancy and the national park service. In 1980 the Channel Islands National Park was formed.

Al began coming here a decade later, fascinated by the geological, biological, and anthropological history of the place. And I finally got here nearly three decades later still. The Chumash survivors are today constructing tomols again and making the 20-mile journey from the mainland during festivals. The sheep and cattle are gone from the islands, the European plants mainly removed, and the island foxes, giant scrub jays, and native plants are coming back. And the descendants of those Europeans who pushed into new lands worldwide are re-visiting Santa Cruz Island as well, enjoying and hopefully appreciating the islands’ spectacular sea caves, kelp forests, and wildlife.

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