Editor's note: This is a special advertiser-supported article from the Essential Guide to Paddling The Parks.
Five islands, an east-west ranging chain that draws your eye into the Pacific sunset, long have lured the curious, industrious, and adventurous. Native peoples found the Channel Islands between 15,000-20,000 years ago, Spanish explorers landed here in the mid-1500s, and abalone harvesters and sheep and cattle ranchers arrived roughly 300 years later. Ever since, people have been leaving the California mainland to head out to sea for the islandsâAnacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguelâand their unique, remote setting and unusual fauna that have given them the tag of âGalapagos of the North.â
Today most are adventurers who find a throw-back of sorts at Channel Islands National Park and National Marine Sanctuary, a rugged landscape that protects the islands and their nearly 250,000 acres of bluffs, rocky shorelines, scrub, chaparral and grasslands that offer a primitive experience for hikers and campers. No lodges, no stores. Just winds, sea spray, and tent sites.
And the water, which attracts most. Beneath the Pacificâs blue surface around the islands rise towering âforestsâ of kelp and rich beds of sea grass that offer habitat for more than 1,000 species of marine life. Itâs into these waters that Channel Islands Outfitters paddles year-round, to both explore sea caves that time and waves have gouged into the islandsâ foundations and to enable you to slip beneath the surface with mask and snorkel to take a closer look at this unusual seascape.
âItâs probably the most bio-diverse (national) park that we have. They call it the âGalapagos of the Northâ for all the right reasons,â says Fraser Kersey, a co-founder of the company that has been guiding the curious and adventurous around the islands for two decades.
âThere are 150 species found nowhere else on Earth that are in the Channel Islands, and the history is really fascinating, from the native Chumash people through the Spanish days and the ranching days. And how itâs all kind of evolved is absolutely fascinating. Going out there is like going back 200 years in California history.â
Bald eagles wheel in the skies over the islands, rare island foxes romp the grasslands, and California Common Murres have been spotted nesting on 100-foot-tall cliffs within the park.
This rich natural and cultural history, as well as the land- and seascapes, make Channel Islands National Park unique among the National Park Systemâs paddling destinations. While youâre not likely to paddle to the islands from the mainlandâthat sea crossing is best left to ferriesâonce you reach the islands Kersey or one of his guides will show you the jewels of the park.
The outfitterâs most popular tour is the two-and-a-half hour kayaking paddle that takes you into some of the largest sea caves in the world and explores grottos with names like the âGreen Roomâ and âNeptuneâs Trident.â And if you want to explore the longest sea cave in the world, Painted Cave, a tunnel that worms its way nearly a quarter-mile into the basement of Santa Cruz Island, they have a more advanced trip to this destination departing from Santa Barbara Harbor.
âThere are more than 200 navigable caves on Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands, which is our primary zone for kayaking,â explains Kersey. âSome are tall, some are short, some are wide, some are really deep, and some are really shallow. Each one is totally unique. Some are just quick in and outs, some you can actually get into and you can have it pitch black in those caves. So there really are a large variety that we send people through.â
Growing in popularity are the companyâs snorkeling trips, which allow you to spend about an hour exploring the kelp forests and their inhabitants. An early morning adventure for campers uses kayaks to get you to various areas for snorkeling, while wetsuits, complete with hoods and booties, help ward off the watersâ chill.
Channel Islands Outfitters operates almost exclusively in âMarine Protection Areasâ (MPAs) that are essentially protected marine reserves where all life is protected from hunting and gathering, thus making wildlife encounters abundant and unadulterated.
Naturally, the question of sharks comes up often among Kerseyâs clients, and with good reason. One of the largest sea lion rookeries in the world is found on San Miguel Island, and where thereâs prey, there are predators.
âThe way sharks migrate through Southern California is they come down through the Farallon Islands near San Francisco, past Point Conception, out to San Miguel and down to Baja,â he says.
âThey definitely exist out here. There are tons of different sharks, leopard sharks, horn sharks. Everybody is scared of a white shark pretty much. âThey exist. Every now and again weâll see a juvenile in the channel, but I personally have paddled 200 days a year for the past 10 or 20 years and Iâve never seen (an adult great white). So I try to tell people itâs their natural environment, they do exist out there, but theyâre so rare that it would be pretty exciting to see one.â
While Channel Islands Outfitters doesnât offer any whale-watching specific kayak tours, youâll very likely spot some whales while making the hourlong ferry crossing. Orcas are frequently spotted, as are dolphins and sea lions.
To help keep the islandsâ environment healthy and flourishing as it has, Channel Islands Outfitters watches its carbon footprint and gives back. Last year, for instance, âwe offset all of our carbon. Everybodyâs trip that went out there was carbon neutral,â says Kersey. The company also is certified as a Certified For-Benefit Corporation for its business practices, and supports programs to get youth into the outdoors through 1% For The Planet.