It’s not something I thought could happen so close to the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. Yet, here we were, looking through a rainbow of ocean mist as dolphins below escorted our Channel Islands ferry to our kayaking adventure on Santa Cruz Island in California.
The dolphins’ long, gray bodies effortlessly sliced through the water, occasionally rocketing into the air for a flip. As our ferry sailed to the island, we accompanied their progress with a soundtrack of oooos and aaaahs. Tired little faces opened in wonder, slowly waking from their 6 am departure, to a private, sea life show.
Two hours later, the crew from Island Packers pulled our boat close to the wharf at Scorpion Ranch, on California’s largest island, Santa Cruz. We had already witnessed the migration of minke whales, the barking of sunning sea lions and the playful antics of various dolphin pods. The day felt magnificent and the sun had only just appeared.
Santa Cruz Island
Historians estimate the 96 square miles of Santa Cruz Island, named “La Isla de Santa Cruz,” or the Island of the Sacred Cross, after an honest Chumash Indian returned a valuable cross forgotten by visiting missionaries, has had a human population inhabiting it for 10,000 years.
It was the Chumash Indians who first settled the patch of green set in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Ice bridges, formed during the Ice Age, are credited with having brought them to the island from the Alaskan region, our naturalist guide from the Santa Barbara Adventure Company, Aaron Kreisberg told us.
Scorpion Ranch, today’s landing spot for those wishing to camp, hike or explore the water around the island, was once a thriving sheep farm and later cattle. Introduction of these and other non-native animals led to overgrazing, which left the island exposed to ocean waters during a 1997 storm that washed much of the man-made structures and animals out to sea.
After this, the descendants of the original owners gifted the island to be split between the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service who have worked to restore the island to its natural state.
As we stepped into the dinghy that carried my family and me from our ferry to the wild grass and molten rock hills of the island, we could see packs of visitors separating into groups. Some strapped on scuba or snorkeling gear, some set out on hikes.
Wildlife in Santa Cruz Island
There are endemic animals to spot on the island, like the island scrub jay and the island fox, the world’s smallest fox, which was just removed from the endangered species list thanks to the Nature Conservancy.
Kayaking on Santa Cruz Island
My family and I followed our group to a line of kayaks that would take us to explore the various sea caves around the island. We packed our cameras and lunches into the provided dry bags and pushed off into the ocean with each double kayak carrying one parent and one child.
Kreisberg led us into the mouths of jagged rocks large enough, at times, to comfortably navigate without touching the walls. On occasion, he warned, the path would be tight and offered techniques to squeeze safely through, making the challenges optional, but ones we couldn’t resist accepting.
Caves on Santa Cruz Island
Each cave was unique. One was an expansive auditorium of bellows hurled by largely inert sea lions, bouncing through the shadows of red and green algae-hued walls. One was a windy snake hole, whose crossing had to be timed with the rise and fall of the tide.
“Go, go, go, go go!” Kreisberg urged as I paddled as quickly as my inexperienced oars could push, always the fate of my child who was sitting in front of me, foremost in my mind. How would it be if we were crushed against the sharp rocks or spilled into the cold water? I tried not to wonder.
Channel Island Provisioners
Finally, it was lunchtime and in between a half ring of rising cliffs, Kreisberg found a patch of sand and stones that served as stools for our afternoon meal. Channel Island Provisioners provided our lunch and snacks.
This not only saved on time and the hassle of preparing food ourselves (meaning mommy) but also allowed us to indulge in delicious, healthy combinations that felt decadent in our rustic surroundings.
Snorkeling on Santa Cruz Island
Kreisberg offered the chance to snorkel in front of our lunch spot around an enormous rock jutting from the ocean. The boys chose to pass and slyly tried to climb the surrounding cliffs while mom and dad braved the cold waters to be rewarded by the sight of a spectrum of fish and sting rays, swimming between ropes of algae.
Kreisberg instructed us how to use the algae to resist the moving tide. I used my fins to kick around that rock as fast as I could, wishing I had chosen to wear the proffered long wetsuit, instead of the sleeveless one.
Before we left the island, we took a few minutes to explore the structures and the skeletal remains of machinery left behind at Scorpion Ranch and preserved by the National Park Service.
Recorded messages, in compartmentalized sections around the household remains, explained to the curious what life looked like back then. I wished we had more time to dig in.
On our journey back to the mainland, we huddled inside the cabin, seeking warmth, exhausted by our discoveries and challenges, enjoying the hot snacks and beverages.
It was a day long commitment to the exploration of a world that felt thousands of light years away yet was only hours from home and added another layer to our family history.
If You Go to Santa Cruz Island
Island Packers could also take you to explore Santa Cruz Island. Round-trip fares for adults are $59, kids between the ages of 3-12 cost $54 each and infants are free, you just must let them know they’re coming. More info can be found at https://islandpackers.com
While there, adventures could be secured through Santa Barbara Adventure Co. https://www.sbadventureco.com. We did the Snorkel and Kayak Combo Tour for $199 a person and the price included everything we’d need and there are other tours available.
Amazing, affordable meals and catering options could be delivered dockside, before your departure, by chef and sailor Neal Rosenthal from Channel Island Provisioners https://cip.bz – we had the deluxe package for $39.95 each – that included our breakfast, lunch, dessert and snacks – each portion enclosed in an insulated, personal cooler with a complimentary water bottle and vintage napkins with silverware that must be returned at the end of your voyage.
Author Bio: Rina Baraz Nehdar is a Los Angeles based, award-winning broadcast journalist barely keeping her head above water as she raises her two rambunctious sons. When she’s not looking for organic groceries, she could be found in downward facing dog or traveling with her family. She is a freelance writer, a frequent contributor to LA Parent Magazine and could be found at www.lafamilytravel.com and www.mommyhasastory.com