OO 1 Local champion surfer Mike Lamm with an animatronic replica of a pigmy mammoth, known as Chippy. Pygmy mammoths inhabited the Channel Islands 10,000 years ago.

Outdoor Observer

Extinct pigmy mammoth replica featured on kayak tour

By Alex Wilson 06/28/2012

A realistic replica of an elephant species that evolved on the Channel Islands and went extinct around 10,000 years ago has sprung to life at the Channel Islands Harbor. An animatronic pygmy mammoth named Chippy will delight visitors, and was the creative vision of a kayak tour operator and his friends who create complex mechanical props for action movies and theme parks, including Disneyland.

Mike Lamm is a champion surfer and coach operating Channel Islands Kayak Center, offering guided kayak tours through caves at Channel Islands National Park, and rentals to people traveling with Island Packers Cruises from both Channel Islands and Ventura Harbors.

He decided to start offering a History and Wildlife Tour near the headquarters at the harbor’s Marine Emporium Landing. Participants receive an introductory kayaking lesson to whet their appetite for the sport and, he hopes, for future trips to the islands.

Kayakers also learn about the natural and cultural history of the Santa Barbara Channel during a tour through the harbor. In addition to watching Chippy rotate his head, visitors kayak through an artificial cave fronted by fiberglass rocks. They paddle under a pier filled with other props, like tools used by Chumash Indians and the helmet of a Spanish-era explorer. 

“As they move on our little canal here, they’re going to get a historical timeline of the occurrences that have happened on the Channel Islands, starting with the creation of the islands, to some of the unique species, as well as the Chumash Indians, the explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, and even the sunken ships and the pirating out there,” says Lamm. After their fun history lesson they search for harbor wildlife like starfish, crabs, sea lions and various birds.

Lamm says his own interest in rare and endemic species of plants and animals found only on the Channel Islands, like the pygmy mammoths, and their fascinating evolutionary histories, led to the vision to bring one back to life.

“There were 25-foot-tall Columbian mammoths that made it to this piece of coastline right here off Oxnard and Ventura,” says Lamm. “They could smell food coming off the Channel Islands, so they went on their own journey, which is to use their trunk like a snorkel, and they swam across the channel and they did find food on the Channel Islands, but a small amount of vegetation. So through Darwin’s theory of time, they started shrinking and they ended up as a small species.”

As Lamm’s ideas developed, he met people who build animatronic creatures for a company called CIFX. Lamm says they were excited to help create the most realistic pygmy mammoth replica ever envisioned, which took about four months.

“They jumped right on board and we made friends, and I took them stand-up paddle-surfing and just buddying out with them. They gave me a pretty good deal, and I said, ‘I’ve got to do it,’ ” says Lamm.

Seeing Chippy in action is like stepping back in time, according to Lamm. “I believe the experience is to bring back to life a character that has been long forgotten in history, barely touched upon; and when they see him, I think it’s something that will be an experience where they get a real-life visual. This is how big they were; they’ll see the fur and the tusks,” says Lamm.

Lamm says his guides are very educated about the cultural history of the Santa Barbara Channel and the real-life critters they encounter. “It’s mixing a virtual tour with real live nature,” says Lamm.

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