Wild Dolphins Ahoy in California’s Channel Islands!

I’ve seen dolphins in the wild for the first time in my life! On an Island Packers catamaran trip to California’s Channel Islands National Park, I experienced the long-awaited pleasure of seeing a pod of common dolphins leap through the waves toward the boat. Over and over, they crested and dove beside us.

These are spotted dolphins, not the same type as the common dolphins I saw. Photo: Oceanic Society

I was standing at the boat’s prow, keeping watch for them, reveling in the sunshine and ocean spray—and hoping that my dolphin jinx would be broken during my stay in the town of Ventura, Calif.

You see, I’ve been to islands, coastal areas and oceans all over the world, and yet I have never spotted a dolphin in the wild. From the waters of British Columbia to Belize; from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean; from Alaska to Florida; from the Galápagos to Singapore to Fiji. No dolphins.

I’ve stayed at beach resorts where the staff tells me, “There are usually dozens of dolphins just off-shore.” But when I was present, the marine mammals were noticeably absent.

For years, I’ve sung “I-I-I-I am calling you. Oh, can’t you hear me?” from every ship, dingy, beach, and cliff overlook, to no avail. (The lyrics are from the Jevetta Steele song in the movie, Bagdad Café.)

Yes, I literally sing to dolphins, and at last they answered.

The Magic of the Sea

Bounding and zipping through the Pacific, these Santa Barbara Channel dolphins played with our boat for about 10 minutes. I hung over the rail to see their silvery backs streak through the water and watch them leap out of the waves. They seemed to be racing our boat, zipping beside, in front of and under us. Sometimes they were no more than 10 feet from my outstretched hand!

I didn’t run to get my camera—that would have required that I take my eyes off the dolphins for too long. Instead, I laughed and cried in wonderment. I don’t really need a photo, because I’ll never forget this moment, this place.

The National Park Service says that groups of dolphins often come to a boat and ride the bow wave for long distances. Why? Simply for fun—or maybe to allow them to conserve energy. No one really knows, but I like to think they were saying hello to me, and inviting me to play.

A Gift for the Dolphins

You can “adopt” Sunflower for a $40 donation to the Oceanic Society.

In honor of the dolphins, I’m suggesting a gift idea: “Adopt” a dolphin in the name of someone you love (including yourself). Several nonprofit organizations such as the Oceanic Society and the World Wildlife Fund offer such a program. For a donation, you receive a photo of the dolphin you’ve adopted—plus the satisfaction of knowing you’ve helped support research and protection of these sea mammals.

P.S. One of my favorite childhood novels, Island of the Blue Dolphins, is set on the Channel Islands during the mid-1800s. I feel like fiction and life have come full-circle.

Laurel Kallenbach, dolphin watcher

What’s been your most significant wildlife siting? Or, what species do you dream of witnessing in the wild? A rare bird? A mountain lion? Howler monkey? Tropical fish? Leave a comment below if you wish.

For more on California’s Channel Islands, read: “Sea Kayaking in Channel Islands National Park”

(Originally posted: November 12, 2010)

Sea Kayaking in California’s Enchanting Channel Islands National Park

Inspiration Point, Anacapa Photo:  Channel Islands National 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.

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

The tour guides with Channel Islands Outfitters show you how to paddle in the Pacific.

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. Drinks and snacks are available for 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

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.

First published, November, 2010

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

Castles in the Utah Desert: Hovenweep National Monument

A castle-like tower as seen from the hike through Little Ruin Canyon in Hovenweep

Hovenweep National Monument has a lovely visitor’s center, and the monument and archaeological site straddles the Colorado/Utah border. (The park is located northwest of Cortez, Colorado.)

Ken and I spent about three hours in this small park, although next time I’d love to camp for one or two nights so that we’d have more time to explore this beautiful area, best known for its ruins.

The enchanting two-mile trail through Hovenweep’s Little Ruin Canyon is to be savored. Filled with square, round and even a spiral towers—along with an assortment of other buildings, storerooms and a “castle” complex — this narrow canyon must have been a 13th-century southwestern Manhattan.

Like most of the Ancestral Puebloans’ impressive architecture, Hovenweep’s dwellings were abandoned just one or two generations after they were built. Drought and deforestation probably factored into the people’s departure, and they moved south where resources were more plentiful.

Hovenweep features twin towers among its architectural wonders.

The hike through Little Ruin canyon is self-guided, but there’s a descriptive brochure that identifies all the prehistoric buildings. (Temperatures during October’s Indian Summer were about 80 at noon.) At the end of the hike, we stopped and rested on a bench, soaking up the warmth like the collared lizards of the area. Overlooking the canyon under brilliant blue skies—with the late afternoon sun golden on the stone and twisted pines—was magical.

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted October 20, 2008

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

Hovenweep National Monument’s visitor center

Window on Winter: Rich Mountain Scenery in the Colorado Rockies

The window of a century-old miner’s cabin frames a peak in Mayflower Gulch, near the Copper Mountain ski area in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. ©Ken Aikin

The window of a century-old miner’s cabin frames a peak in Mayflower Gulch, near the Copper Mountain ski area in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. ©Ken Aikin

There’s gold in them thar hills—but it’s covered in snow. During the Colorado gold and silver rushes, the beautiful mountains of Mayflower Gulch were valued for their precious ore; today, the ski industry is far more lucrative.

However, there’s no fee to enjoy Mayflower Gulch. A scenic snowshoe or cross-country ski trail—located just six miles south on Highway 91 from the Copper Mountain ski area—offers a relatively easy, four-mile route. Its payoff for skiers, snowshoers, and hikers is a spectacular view of the Ten Mile Range.

A natural amphitheater, created by a horseshoe of jagged mountains, makes a stunning backdrop for ruined miners’ cabins from the early 1900s. The blend of natural scenery and the ruins of the old Boston mining camp make this a fascinating trip. Keep an eye out for tailings from old mines and a dilapidated ore chute.

Looking through a dilapidated cabin window, you behold a wealth of high-altitude wilderness, but in past the century, folks came here with dreams of finding gold and silver. For skiers, the exhilaration is in the snow on a sunny, Colorado day.

Click here for info on the Mayflower Gulch trail.

The jagged schist-rock ridge with 13,995-foot Mount Fletcher is a great spot for Telemark ski runs. ©Ken Aikin

The jagged schist-rock ridge with 13,995-foot Mount Fletcher is a great spot for Telemark ski runs. ©Ken Aikin

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor