Explorations: Channel Islands

Santa Barbara Harbor

A Truth Aquatics boat sits in the dock at Santa Barbara Harbor. Truth Aquatics has been taking visitors to the Santa Barbara Channel and the Channel Islands since 1974.

A Hard Day's Night

A buoy makes the perfect daybed for this sea lion. The highly productive waters of the Santa Barbara Channel make it a great home for common dolphins, orcas, and migrating gray whales.

Scorpion Harbor

Most trips to Santa Cruz Island, the largest island off the west coast of the United States, begin at Scorpion Harbor. A diverse kelp forest thrives in the protected landing.

Scorpion Landing

Day-hikers and overnight backpackers arrive on Santa Cruz Island.

Scorpion Beach

The islands rose from the sea 5 million years ago. Erosion from waves has shaped the sea cliffs, carving tunnels and caves.

Island Fox

Three species of mammals are found only the Channel Islands and nowhere else in the world. The endangered Island Fox, the smallest native canine species in North America, may be the cuddliest.

Legacies of the Ocean

The jeep trail hugging the side of this hill on Santa Cruz Island offers a glimpse into its watery origins. The white marks are diatomaceous earth, the accumulated skeletons of tiny sea creatures that gathered on the sea floor and were thrust up when the islands emerged from the sea. Anacapa Island rests on the horizon.

Dusk at Potato Harbor

Before Channel Islands National Park was established in 1980, ranchers and their herds wandered the islands. A old fencepost guards this seacliff.

San Miguel Island

The most remote island in the national park, San Miguel island is probably the least-visited. The dead-looking Dr. Seussian plants are dormant Giant Coreopsis, which bear yellow flowers in their flowering season.

Cuylor Harbor

A group of visitors explores the beaches of San Miguel Island. Elephant seals and other marine mammals rest in the sands, avoiding the bustle of most Southern California beaches.

Sand Crab

Over 2,000 species make their home in Channel Islands National Park.

Sea Hare

This sea hare, a type of sea slug, makes it's home in Cuyler Harbor off of San Miguel Island. When scared, sea hares release a purple dye to confuse predators.

A Human Landscape

Evidence of development and the ranching legacy is easy to see on Santa Rosa Island. A jeep road and an airstrip parallel the shore, and invasive grass species dominate former grazelands.

Painted Cave

A Truth Aquatics boat prepares to enter one of the largest sea caves in the world. Painted Cave is 100 feet wide and over 160 feet tall at the entrance, and extends a quarter mile under Santa Cruz Island.

Prisoner's Harbor

Santa Cruz Island is managed by the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy, which maintains historic ranching buildings.


Divers, backpackers, and students take overnight trips to the islands.

Returning Home

The sun sets over Ventura Harbor at the end of a trip to Channel Islands National Park.


On a clear day they’re easy to see.  Driving down the Southern California coast or picking through the sandy beaches of Santa Barbara, you can spot the eight Channel Islands rising gently from the Pacific Ocean.  Of the eight, two belong to the navy, one is a tourist destination with 4,000 year-round residents (the famous Catalina Island), and five comprise the state’s most biologically unique, but one of its least visited, national parks.

The five northernmost islands make up Channel Islands National Park. Map by Lencer under Creative Commons Lincense.
The five northernmost islands make up Channel Islands National Park. Map by Lencer under Creative Commons Lincense.

Channel Islands National Park, founded in 1980, includes the five northernmost islands and the  surrounding waters. Fishers and whale-watchers take regular trips around the Santa Barbara Channel, thousands of day hikers and backpackers ferry over throughout the year, and divers drop in to see kelp forests in the Marine Protected Area. For many visitors it’s a quick escape from the bustle of Southern California.

When the Channel Islands rose from the sea around 5 million years ago, a period of ecological colonization began. The new islands were close to the mainland but never quite connected, and an astounding diversity of organisms made their way to the Channel Islands.  Colonizing species were caried by ocean currents, strong winds, natural plant-debris rafts, and human-built watercraft, . Today the Channel Islands are known as the “Galapagos of North America,” which in fact may not be as hyperbolic as it sounds. Together the islands are home to 145 endemic species—plants and animals that exist nowhere else on earth.

The Island Fox may be the best known of the islands’ endemic species. Island Foxes descended from Gray Foxes that arrived on the islands thousands of years ago. Once they arrived, new environmental challenges and opportunities changed the way the foxes behaved and looked. There was no easy way for foxes to escape the islands, so instead they adapted to their new island home. With no native predators and few competitors, foxes on the island didn’t need to be as big as they were on the mainland. Modern Island Foxes are about the size of a house cat, several pounds lighter and with two vertebrae fewer than their cousins the Gray Foxes.

The shrinking process, known as insular dwarfism, isn’t unique to foxes. A small population of mammoths, once widespread in California, migrated to the islands and drastically shrank in size. Other species, like the endemic Island Scrub Jay, responded to unique island conditions by growing in size.

A natural laboratory of evolution, Channel Islands National Park is open to visitors year-round. Several environmental education organizations, including Guided Discoveries, Naturalists at Large, and NatureBridge, offer guided trips to the islands for elementary through high school-aged students.  Ferry tickets are available from Island Packers in Ventura Harbor, and visitors also arrive by air, private boat, and (for the experienced) by canoe.

David Gonzalez

David Gonzalez is an Editor and Webmaster at SAGE Magazine and a Master of Environmental Science (MESc) candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. His studies focus on global health and the environment, with a regional interest in Latin America.

More Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *