Friday, March 08, 2019

Island Journal - A Visit to San Miguel Island

A visit to San Miguel Island is a rare opportunity. Island foxes are few and the land is windswept. Experience a firsthand trip to this remote Channel Island.

Island Journal - San Miguel Island 

San Miguel Island lies at the top of the Southern California Bight, 26 miles from Point Conception. The western most of the Channel Islands, San Miguel receives the full force of the cold California current sweeping past its shores.

Recently, I went on a rarely offered day trip to San Miguel to observe firsthand how the island is recovering from years of ranching and to get a feeling of what island life must endure to survive there. 

After a night of light rain and distant thunder, the morning was overcast, but dry. On the boat trip out, the winds were light as was the swell.  The crossing was direct to San Miguel, approximately a 3-hour trip. About an hour out of Ventura, we spotted the blow of a Humpback whale.  The Islander Packers' boat took time to observe the mighty cetacean feeding in the channel.  A few minutes later, we observed 2 more blows further out.

Santa Cruz Island and Santa Rosa Island slowly passed by on our port side. Eventually, San Miguel came into view. 
There is no pier on San Miguel which means we landed by skiff. It's common to have large breakers at the beach on Miguel, which can easily swamp a skiff. Fortunately, the seas remained uncharacteristically calm. We arrived on schedule at 11:15 with 110 people on-board and 2 skiffs. Each skiff  holds 6 passengers. It took approximately 30 minutes to get everyone ashore. Once on the island we had  the mandatory island briefing by the National Park Service (NPS) naturalist.

San Miguel island is owned by the US Navy and managed by the NPS.  During WWII and through to the 1970s, San Miguel was used as a Navy bombing range. To protect visitors from any hazards that might still exist (the Navy did a complete survey in 2016 and found no unexploded ordnance), and to protect the natural resources, visitors must hike in escorted groups. However, you can freely explore the mile-long beach at Cuyler Harbor and hike up to the nearby ranger station and campground. 

To access the island interior, we hiked from the beach up the steep Nidever Canyon for approximately a half mile, gaining 600 feet in the process. The canyon is a great example of how the island is recovering. There is an incredible display of native vegetation; very healthy coastal sagebrush and coastal bluff scrub plant communities with coreopsis, buckwheat, and dudleya. Once on top, we were afforded terrific views of Cuyler Harbor. 

Our instructions were to be back on the beach by 2:30 to begin the skiffing process back to the boat for a 3:30 departure back to Ventura, which didn’t leave much time for exploring. I decided to check out the Cabrillo Monument and wander near the ranger station.

At the ranger station, I ran into one of the fox biologists that I know, so wandering became gabbing about fox whiskers and how ice plant travels the digestive system of the fox much like celery travels ours. Perhaps TMI, but hey...that’s what we talk about and that’s one way information gets passed on.

Talking scat passes the time quickly and I had to head back to the beach. On the beach, a juvenile elephant seal was thermoregulating. They're one of the pinniped species which call San Miguel Island home.

The route back to Ventura Harbor took us along the north side of Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands with a stop in Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world. The winds remained light and sea was like glass.

We were treated to numerous pods of common dolphins, numbering in the thousands, as well as two minke whales, the smallest of the great whales.

We also spotted the same humpback whale, very close to where we spotted it in the morning. (Humpbacks can be identified by the markings on their tail flukes). The Santa Barbara channel did not disappoint! 

No fox sightings to report, but I did see the tell-tale signs of their presence, chiefly scat, littered about in typical fox fashion. 

The day to San Miguel didn’t become the island exploration I first believed it would, but instead became a time to develop a deeper appreciation for the whole ecosystem that encompasses the Channel Islands. An ecosystem where the tiniest zooplankton feeds the mightiest whales. An ecosystem where man’s impact can have a profound negative impact or bring a species back from the brink of extinction. - Mike Watling, FIF Advisory Board