Sea Kayaking in California’s Enchanting Channel Islands National Park

Inspiration Point, Anacapa Photo: Channel Islands Nat'l Park

The Channel Islands captured my imagination when I read Scott O’Dell’s Newbery Award-winning book, Island of the Blue Dolphins, about a Chumash girl who lived there alone after her tribe was forcibly relocated to the mainland in the mid-1800s.

Now for the first time, I’ve gotten to visit one of the Channel Islands, celebrating its 34th anniversary as a National Park this year.

Island Packers' boats take visitors to the Channel Islands Photo: Blue Sky Kayak Tours

The Channel Islands can be reached from the marina at Ventura (or from the city of Oxnard) by boarding an Island Packers catamaran.

I went to the island of Santa Cruz, which was a 9:00 to 5:00 day trip that runs year-round. (I was there in mid-October.) It takes an hour to reach the two landings: Scorpion Anchorage and Prisoners Harbor (you can depart at either).

Things to Do on Santa Cruz

  • Hiking: There are 16 hikes of varying lengths and difficulty on the 24-mile long island (partly owned by the Nature Conservancy)
  • Swimming: Beach access is at Scorpion Anchorage, Smuggler’s Cove, Prisoners Harbor
  • Snorkeling and diving
  • Sea kayaking: You must bring your own kayak, rent one, or go with an outfitter
  • Camping: There’s a campground near Scorpion Anchorage)
  • Birdwatching: The endemic Island Scrub Jay lives nowhere else on the planet

Kayaking Around the Shores of Santa Cruz Island

Blue Sky Kayak tour guides show you how to paddle in the Channel Islands. Photo: Blue Skies

I chose to spend the day at Santa Cruz on the water by taking a guided sea kayak excursion with Channel Islands Outfitters. They provided individual top-seater kayaks, a wetsuit (sleeveless for ease of paddling), life vest, dry bags for clothes, and experienced guides who spend a lot of time in the park.

(The National Park Service does not allow any tour operators to serve food, so you have to bring along your own food and water. There are drinks and snacks available for you to purchase on the Island Packers boat.)

My group’s guides, Clay and Matt, asked the boat to drop us off at a lovely area a little west of Prisoners Harbor off Nature Conservancy land. They instructed us on safety, gave us paddling tips, and helped us suit up. Then off we went, paddling among the jagged shoreline and kelp forests around Santa Cruz.

Sea urchins and starfish Photo: Channel Islands National Park

The ocean was calm, and it wasn’t hard to approach the rock cliffs for up-close views of rocks crusted with starfish, barnacles, and limpets. Cliff pointed out the bright-orange garibaldi, California’s state fish. I never got a close look, but its color shone brilliantly from the water.

In some places, the kelp forests were so thick that I felt like I was paddling through sand. My paddle blades kept getting caught in the wavy strands of brown kelp or tangled amid the kelp’s air bladders. When that happened, we were told to slide the paddle gently upwards rather than trying to rip it away from the sea plants.

Adventures with Sea Lions

Shy harbor seals poked their heads above water to check out our kayak group, but if we got very close or make direct eye contact, they slid their round heads beneath the surface and disappeared in an instant.

Harbor seals Photo: Channel Islands National Park

The curious California sea lions were more bold. At one point when I was paddling a short distance from the others, I heard a sea lion blowing air as it surfaced right behind me. I was a little scared, but it didn’t come too close—and then it dove. A moment later, I heard the sea lion blow again, this time on the opposite side of my kayak. I said “hello there!” before it dove again. Our little game of tag when on for a few minutes, then the sea lion moved on to more interesting things—such as catching delicious fish!

Our group stopped at a rocky beach for lunch. It was a cloudy day with several rain showers while we were paddling, so when we got on land I was pretty chilly. (And a little seasick from paddling through some choppier waves. Who knew?) Fortunately, on land Clay and Matt unpacked our dry clothes, so our picnic was fairly comfortable and enjoyable.

On the beach at Santa Cruz island Photo: Blue Sky Kayak Tours

Far too soon, it was time to leave this quiet adventure of paddling placidly amid the ocean wilds. It felt great to be propelling myself through the water, smelling the salt air, and watching the waves and the sky and the pelicans.

As someone who lives in a land-locked state, I just never tire of the miracle of the sea.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

What are the best kayaking spots you’ve visited? Leave a comment below.

Sustainable Seafood Served with Passion

Ocean-friendly tuna at Passionfish restaurant, Pacific Grove, California

Chef Ted Walter and his wife Cindy are passionate about healthy, flavorful food without jeopardizing the environment—land or sea. Together, they created Passionfish, a Pacific Grove, Calif., restaurant that serves fresh, innovative cuisine with a focus on sustainable seafood and organic produce.

To accomplish this, the Walters shop local farmer’s markets for pesticide-free fruits and veggies. They also go to great lengths to buy seafood that’s harvested in a manner that does not deplete fish populations, doesn’t harm ocean habitats (including the water or the ocean floor), and doesn’t result in by-catch of the ocean’s endangered turtles or other marine species.

Seventy percent of all seafood consumed in the United States is served in restaurants. That statistic inspires the Walters to be good ocean and river stewards and to serve only sustainable seafood. At Passionfish, you can dine well knowing that you’ll find no over-fished or threatened fish on the menu.

Portrait of the Perfect Eco-Meal

With an unpretentious and relaxed atmosphere, Passionfish is perfect for those who love food for flavor’s sake. And the prices are extremely reasonable, especially given the quality of the food and the creativity that goes into making it.

On my visit, the baked gorgonzola with golden chutney served on a bed of greens was divine. Who would think of pairing gorgonzola with curry chutney? A genius, that’s who! Chef Walter isn’t just an ocean crusader—he’s a wizard in the kitchen.

The sea scallops served with tomato truffle butter and risotto were inspired and subtle. I found the scallops cooked just right—not overdone and dry, but not gooey either. (Full disclosure: I can’t resist truffles, so this dish goes down in my book as an entrée of a lifetime!)

Those who do not care for seafood should not shun Passionfish. A Lemongrass Chicken with Coconut Rice dish on the evening’s menu was absolutely brilliant, made with free-range organic chicken.

Chef Walter harvests Monterey Bay prawns.

Last but not least, Passionfish’s desserts are truly the way to top off a sublime sustainable meal. The Chocolate Truffle Torte (the other truffle—also a favorite of mine) was to die for. I visited during strawberry season, and the organic strawberries in cabernet syrup served over vanilla ice cream exploded with flavor.

Located just a mile or so from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which champions ocean conservation, you can’t do better than to enjoy an eco-guilt-free dinner at Passionfish.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For more on the Seafood Watch program, read my post on the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California and the Local Ocean Seafood restaurant in Newport, Oregon.

Photos courtesy Passionfish

Monterey Bay Aquarium: Saving Oceans One Fish at a Time

The jellyfish tanks are a highlight at the ocean-friendly Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

For California vacationers, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is the place to see exotic fish and sea creatures. However, the Aquarium is also dedicated to educating people about environmental issues that threaten ocean creatures. And its Seafood Watch program helps the seafood-loving consumers make wise seafood choices.

Among the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s highlights are the Kelp Forest exhibit, playful sea otters, giant tunas and barracudas (go at lunchtime to witness a feeding frenzy!), and the mysterious giant octopus whose tentacles move more gracefully than ballerinas. Also worth checking out are cute black-footed penguins, jellyfish that drift in the currents, and the Touching Pool, where you can place your hands in the water and brush your fingertips over the silky wings of stingrays gliding around the tank.

My favorite octopus, Monterey Bay Aquarium

These incredible marine life forms are so diverse and enthralling that it’s inconceivable to think of them disappearing. So it’s encouraging that the Aquarium teaches about ocean conservation.

Every year, 80,000 school children visit and learn about why they shouldn’t eat swordfish (the fishing lines entangle endangered sea turtles) or Atlantic cod (it’s dangerously overfished). The kids take home a handy Seafood Watch Pocket Guide, which lists the best and least sustainable choices of seafood at supermarkets and restaurants.

Watching Out for Oceans

The Monterey Bay Aquarium raises and explains issues pertaining to choosing and eating fish:

Overfishing: Fish such as orange roughy, Chilean sea bass and bluefin tuna are threatened due to over-zealous fishing. Seafood Watch estimates that more than 70 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fished to capacity or overfished.

Farmed vs. wild-caught: Some aquaculture methods, including salmon farming, produce concentrated fecal waste that pollutes surrounding waters.

Method of fishing: If fish is caught wild, methods such as trawl nets, dredging and traps kill other species. The most famous example was dolphins being caught in tuna nets.

Human health: Toxic mercury content of seafood is a disturbing health problem, although fortunately some fish contain less mercury than others. (Swordfish, tilefish, shark, and king mackerel are especially high in mercury and should be avoided.)

Fortunately, according to Seafood Watch, we can make a difference by supporting fisheries and fish farms that are better for the environment, while passing on others that aren’t doing as well.

The Kelp Forest, Monterey Bay Aquarium

SeafoodWatch.org has a downloadable seafood guide listing fish according to their level of endangerment. You can also download a smart phone app that brings you up-to-date recommendations for restaurants and markets that serve ocean-friendly seafood and sushi.

Cooking for Solutions

Love to eat seafood? Cooking for Solutions—a celebration of fine food and wine produced in ways that preserve the health of the soil, water and ocean—is held each May at California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium. The 2013 event, May 17–19, features celebrity chefs John Ash and Cindy Pawlcyn.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read my next post about Passionfish, a sustainable seafood restaurant near the Monterey Bay Aquarium. 

Photos courtesy Monterey Bay Aquarium

California Surfing on a Ventura Beach

When I told my husband that I was planning to take a surf lesson while on a press trip to Ventura, Calif., he stared at me as if I had been snatched by Martians. He weighed his words carefully: “How unlike you.” He really meant: “Who are you, and what have you done with my wife?”

Yes, surfing seems high on the athletic adventure scale—more the purview of well-muscled beach boys than wimpy, flabby writerly types. But I love the ocean, and I couldn’t think of anything more representative of the Ventura experience than to get on a board.

Professional surfer Mary Osborne gives private lessons and runs surf camps in Ventura, Calif. Photo courtesy Patagonia

Besides, I had low expectations. I pictured lying tummy-down on the board and flailing through a few swells.

Surfing Surprises

My instructor was Mary Osborne, a champion longboarder and tandem surfer who grew up on the beaches of Ventura. She’s a petite blonde who does surf modeling and won MTV’s “Surf Girls.” And she’s devoted to teaching women and kids to surf. She runs surf camps for people of all ages, sizes and abilities.

Mary is also the co-author of Sister Surfer: A Woman’s Guide to Surfing with Bliss and Courage (Lyons Press: 2005). It’s a how-to book that guides women through the process of learning to surf and covers everything from conquering fear to waxing a board.

The first step to learning to surf is practicing on the sand with Mary giving pointers.

First surprise: Mary explained to me and the other journalist who was taking a lesson that she was going to show us the new craze: stand-up paddling. In this sport, the surfer stands on a larger, wider surfboard and paddles to catch a wave. I’d never heard of stand-up paddling, but Mary assures us it will be an Olympic event someday.

Second surprise: As we women stood in the parking lot wriggling into cold, clammy, skin-tight wetsuits, I realized there’s a pretty un-glamorous side to surfing. If you’re going to surf much, you get used to changing clothes in public!

Then Mary pulled a board out of her pickup and balanced it atop her head with the posture of a ballet dancer. Once on the sand—we were at Surfer Point by Ventura Pier—she demonstrated how to lie on the board and bring yourself to standing. It starts like the Upward Dog pose in yoga and then you kick a leg back into a lunge and bring yourself erect. Hello core muscles!!

Practicing in the ocean

After we’d practiced that move on land, Mary demonstrated stand-up paddling on the water. She made it look easy, bouncing right up on the board to a standing position. As the board skimmed along the surface, she looked like she was walking on water while “sweeping” the ocean surface with a broom-like paddle.

I couldn’t imagine being able to achieve a vertical posture. Yet, I followed Mary into the ocean, and with her patient coaching, I hand-paddled myself while lying on the board (super fun as you glide over the swells!) and then managed to stand on my knees and cautiously paddled. It’s a real lesson in balance.

Ultimately, Mary convinced me I could even stand up on the board. I gave it my best shot—twice—but always plummeted into the sea when I got semi-erect. But here’s the thing: it was fun! Even falling was okay—sort of goofy as you flop unceremoniously into the water—although getting back on the board in deep water was challenging for me.

So, I had a blast trying to surf, and honestly, I can see how with an instructor like Mary and some practice, pretty much anybody could get the hang of surfing…and soon be hanging ten!

Save the Oceans

There’s an ecological angle to my surf lesson: Mary Osborne is just one of the many pro surfers who are becoming ocean ambassadors by helping the public become aware of the importance of preserving and protecting oceans and beaches. (One of Mary’s sponsors is outdoor gear company Patagonia, a leader in corporate sustainability.)

Surfer Mary Osborne is also passionate about preserving beaches. Photo by Ellen Barnes

Mary and other surfers know firsthand about polluted, contaminated oceans. They wade through debris that washes up on shorelines daily. And, shockingly, many surfers are infected with potentially life-threatening staph infections from the water. Storm and sewage runoff washes harmful bacteria right into the water for a brew that’s toxic to both humans and ocean animals.

(For more about preserving beaches and fighting runoff pollution, visit the nonprofit organization Surfrider.)

In addition, Mary is currently on a plastic-pollution research trip run by The 5 Gyres Institute to help raise awareness of the problem. Along with a team of researchers, she and fellow professional surfer, James Pribram, are sailing from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town, South Africa, to explore the Atlantic plastic “gyre”: a rotating system of ocean currents where floating debris accumulates. This plastic garbage patch harms marine wildlife and potentially threatens human health. See the 5 Gyres blog for updates on the voyage of the research ship, “The Sea Dragon.”

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and ocean lover

P.S. I’m dying to hear about an un-characteristic adventure you’ve taken, dear reader. Tell me about it in a comment below…