Sea Lions Sea lions lining the shore of Santa Barbara Island.

Outdoor Observer

Small Santa Barbara Island is big on adventure and wildlife  

By Alex Wilson 08/16/2012

Santa Barbara Island is the smallest of the eight Channel Islands, but exciting watersports and natural beauty make it well worth the effort and planning required to travel and camp there. My wife, Dawn, and I experienced spectacular ocean views and rich diversity of plants and wildlife during four days and three nights there. We enjoyed kayaking, hiking and snorkeling through kelp forests teeming with colorful fish, sea urchins and playful sea lions.


The remote island is much farther from the mainland than the other four in Channel Islands National Park. Island Packers Cruises makes a few trips there each year, and since there are only 10 campsites, reserving one as soon as they become available is important.


Santa Barbara Island is surrounded by dramatic cliffs, with only a few small, inaccessible pocket beaches. Access to the island from landing vessels and getting into the ocean requires climbing a ladder from a pier.


After lowering kayaks with ropes, we paddled to view sea lion rookeries lining the shore, where cute pups were tended by their parents. We also encountered two enormous elephant seal bulls hauled out on a beach, and maneuvered through a dark cave. Rocks along the shore were covered with brightly colored starfish and sea anemones. The water was so clear we could see the ocean floor and swaying kelp forests by peering over the side of our kayak.


Transporting a kayak to the island was easy because a sales and rental company called Channel Islands Kayak Center has offices near the docks where Island Packers Cruises departs from both Ventura and Channel Islands Harbors. Helpful staff set us up with everything we needed and even helped load the kayak onto Island Packers’ speedy and smooth sailing catamaran.


During our second full day on Santa Barbara Island we snorkeled from the Landing Cove and experienced the rich underwater world below the ocean surface. Some highly curious sea lions swam within inches of us, and seemed to be showing off what elegant swimmers they are. While the animals sometimes look a bit clumsy while crawling over rocks on their flippers, they displayed fantastic grace underwater, sometimes doing a quick loop followed by a spin. We also saw bright orange garibaldi, which are California’s state marine fish, as well as transparent jellyfish.


Some people swam without wetsuits, but we’d recommend wearing them since the water is chilly. I had one I bought from Ventura Dive and Sport when I learned to SCUBA dive there a few years back, and it was a convenient place to rent equipment for my wife since it is also located in Ventura Harbor where our boat departed from.


Hiking on Santa Barbara revealed an abundance of stunning views. A park volunteer taught us about the island’s long cultural history as a resting place for Native American mariners, and the brief ranching history spanning from 1914 to 1922.


We easily covered the five miles of trails and spotted rare island night lizards and Santa Barbara Island buckwheat. We saw interesting birds, including orange-billed oystercatchers, and beautiful barn owls that hunted into the daylight hours, unlike their mostly nocturnal mainland cousins. Western sea gulls we frequently encounter on the mainland seemed wilder than usual as they vocally defended their chicks and battled one another for territory.


Camping on Santa Barbara Island is a welcome respite from busy mainland life, and gazing at the vast surrounding ocean slowed us down to a more meditative state that we called being on island time.

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