Adventures in the Channel Islands: California Back in Time

My maritime obsessed father named me Marina and it feels right–I always want to get out on the water. After browsing for day trips on boats leaving out of Santa Barbara, an upcoming getaway, my husband Sam found one boat offering a once-a-year, 5 day, live-aboard, fully guided and supported expedition around the Channel Islands. We stopped looked at each other in stunned silence–screw day trips, this was the dream! And the expedition was leaving the harbor in, uh, 48 hours. After a wild childcare scramble, we made it from Hawaii to the Santa Barbara harbor, the last guests to drag our bags, surfboards and cooler onto the 80-foot Vision, joining maybe 15 other adventurous souls and a motley crew of grinning staff, no doubt stoked they got to come along for this rare voyage.

The crew explained that after we were all rocked in sleep in our births below deck, around midnight, Captain Dan (tattoos, beard, maybe 30, who scuba dove sans wetsuits with his gorgeous Brazilian girlfriend–brrrrr!) would fire up the engines, make the crossing, and if the weather and seas allowed, just before dawn he’d drop anchor off San Miguel Island: the furthest, ficklest, and most rugged of the Channel Islands.

The next morning I climbed up, uber-rested from my delicious, hypnotic boat sleep, and found everyone above deck milling around in sweaters and hats, clutching steaming mugs and buzzing with excitement. I looked out the salt spattered windows on my way to the open deck, and my heart leapt. The place felt wild. The boat swayed and tugged on its anchor line maybe half a mile from shore, and in every direction we were utterly alone. No boats, no humans, nothing. The thick fog gave and stole visions of San Miguel Island in a single breath: an empty coast of powdery white sand and turquoise water. After gobbling a delicious breakfast whipped up from scratch in the tiny galley, (impressive, since it was smaller than my bathroom at home) the fog began to lift, and we loaded into our kayaks with cameras to explore the island by water.




Did you know you can just pick raw kelp out of the water and stick it in your mouth? Yep. Kelp the fastest growing plant in the ocean, and it’s loaded with nutrients. Just pick the growing tip, assuring that you’re eating kelp so fresh it was grown that very day.

We dipped in and out of sea caves, paddled through kelp as thick as ramen in soup, and along islets, coves, rocky coasts, and then pulled up here, and I felt like we had shipwrecked on a Caribbean desert island.

Maybe the wildest part is that we were only a few hours from the 25 million people that live in Southern California. And yet, I felt like a National Geographic photographer somewhere remote and maybe a little dangerous. The place was TEEMING with jumping, barking and splashing “pinnipeds,” or seals/sea lions/harbor seals/walrus etc.

Doesn’t this one look a like a dog?

After a day of exploring the island by kayak, we returned to San Miguel for sunset, this time on land. Our boat the Vision tows a rubber skiff behind it (aptly named 20/20) that deposited a few loads of us from the boat anchored in the middle of a bay to the thigh deep, sapphire-blue water of shore, and we took off splashing and running for the beach. San Miguel is home to one palm tree, leftover from a film scene in the 1950’s, and a vast emptiness of powdery white sand, rumored to have blown all the way over from Pismo Beach. The place had no footprints until we made them. It felt like being in California the way I imagine it hundreds years ago, and I couldn’t stop grinning and shouting “wow,” whoa,” and “this is amazing!” We found caves dripping with artesian spring water, a stream, and a freshwater pool circled in fox prints. I came on this trip thinking the islands were barren and dry and I’d get my joy from the blue of the ocean alone, but these pockets of lushness on land fed my soul.

The next day the weather turned tropical, strangely warm wind blowing from the south almost like the air was sick, and with it came the epic swell we’d had our eyes on. Sam and I begged the captain to derail the day’s plans and anchor off the closest surf spot, but he was set on doing a hike that everyone could enjoy. Crazy. But he did agree to consider taking us out to Skunk Point that afternoon, and we grudgingly shut up.

Pictured below is photogenic Santa Rosa Island:

PC: Anna Favero

On Santa Rosa, we climbed a canyon, swore at the heat, crested her spine and took copious photos as we made our way to these clear waters among countless bays and coves. We passed untouched midden piles from the Chumash Indians and stopped at yet another beautiful, empty beach, feeling high with the beauty of it all. We body surfed and drooled at the swell that we could see hitting a lot bigger at the distant point.

PC: Anna Favero

Here the water temp in August was a balmy 68…and that was warm compared to other spots we visited. But who cares? An empty, crystal clear beach a few hours from LA? We’ll take it. 

PC: Anna Favero

As the adventure continued, so did our underwater time. Sam and I didn’t end up getting to surf where and when we had hoped, but we did snorkel and freedive for hours each day. Others brought full scuba gear to explore the deep kelp forests, cut by sun rays and carrot-orange Garibaldi. Not to mention the colorful shallow water diving: starfish, corals, abalone, lobsters, cucumbers, anemones, urchins and reef fish.

PC: Anna Favero

PC: Anna Favero

PC: Anna Favero

PC: Anna Favero

We even found a professional mermaid among the other guests. Who knew that was a thing? She hails from the clear spring water of Florida and teaches anyone who wants to learn how to “mermaid.”


PC: Anna Favero

And how’s this? Halibut for dinner!

Also caught by this all-star diving chef, were fresh scallops! Watching the cleaning process, I learned that as soon as the shell of a scallop is pried open, around here you’ll likely find a small, resident crab waving its legs at you in fury. We debated the little crab’s purpose: Parasitic? Symbiotic? Debate unfurled.

PC: Anna Favero

This sighting of rare Risso’s dolphins seemed to go on and on as they played and jumped in the deep water off Santa Rosa. How’re the dolphin tattoos?!

One of our last excursions was the rocky crust of Santa Cruz Island, where the land meets the blue. Santa Cruz’s northwest shoreline, taking the brunt of the wind and waves, has been eaten away to create some of the biggest sea caves in the world.

We entered the biggest and most significant of them all, known as The Painted Cave, and as the light dimmed, the rock ceiling soared above us with enough space to fit several houses stacked atop each other. We paddled the quarter of a mile into the back of the cave like we were paddling into night itself. We stopped paddling in the pitch-blackness, very close to a beach I couldn’t see, but it’s loungers began to let loose a riot of noise. The barking of seals began as singular bursts, like insults from the peanut gallery, until they merged into a chorus of protest, the sound exploding again and again against the walls. Splashes followed from every direction. The seals were probably slipping past our kayaks unseen, barking all the while like the creepiest Halloween audio you can imagine. When at last the cave went quiet, a voice boomed out. It was Garrett’s, a guide and one of the owners of the boat.

“This place was sacred to the Chumash Indians,” he began, and I sat back, smiling and listening to their creation story. The mythical Rainbow Bridge allowed the indigenous Chumash who came from this very place, Santa Cruz Island, to cross over to the mainland of California.

“And this cave is sacred to them,” he added. “Today I ask, what is sacred to you? What do you want to call into your life? Take a few minutes to reflect,” Garrett finished and behind his voice the silence filled in, a silence somehow made louder by its own thrumming echo, and flanked by the surging of waves along the cave walls. And I thought that was it, as I basked in the yummy warmth of gratitude and reflection, two things I love, when the sound of a flute bloomed off the rock walls. What? I looked around in surprise, but of course I couldn’t see anything. The notes curled and spun high, wandering and beautiful, until they dropped into a deep register before disappearing. I relished the darkness in a new way, my thoughts sinking deeper in the afterglow of the music. We bobbed, directionless for another few moments, hearing only water and feeling they way I imagine it was in the womb.

Wow, that was a cool way to end the trip, I thought as we made our wordless paddle back out of the cave. Blinking in the sunlight again, I did a double take upon catching just the tip of a wooden flute sticking out of Brad’s lifejacket and smiled to myself.

All in all, this felt like a once in a lifetime experience. You could travel halfway across the world and not find somewhere as unspoiled as this, right off of crowded Southern California.



And a note on the photography: it feels unique to me that all of these photos are untouched. There has been no digital tweaking between what you see here, and what we saw.

Here is where to find the Channel Islands Expeditions 5 Day Live Aboard Trip:


They also offer day trips to the Painted Cave and all kinds of kayaking and snorkeling trips, chartered fishing, diving and seasonal whale watching:


Meanwhile if you’re looking for somewhere affordable, but still beautiful and unique in Santa Barbara, gateway to the Channel Islands, you might check out this private studio hidden on an estate that looks like rural Italy:


Happy Adventuring 🙂

Let me know what you think about the Channel Islands!

Comments 4

  1. Ting ting

    I got completely lost, lusciously immersed in your story. Then remembered I’m at my computer and need some dinner!
    Thank you for the ride and beautiful images. So happy to be a part of making this journey happen. LOVE you.

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