Sea conditions were not as ideal in late May, when I joined a group of campers headed for San Miguel, 64 miles west of the mainland. Twelve-foot seas made the four-hour journey uncomfortable for many of those on board, as the Island Packers' 64-foot power catamaran lurched up and down through huge waves. I loved it, but I kept my views to myself and cheered only inwardly, out of respect for my seasick companions.
Luckily, the weather was better on San Miguel. It offers good hiking and, of course, lots of solitude.
Sixteen miles east of Ventura, Anacapa's three volcanic islets rise steeply from the sea, seeming to float on the horizon like a distant mirage. The name, in fact, is derived from a Chumash word for "mirage."
The rocky, treeless shores here have been eroded by wind and waves, creating towering sea cliffs, caves and natural bridges, including 40-foot-high Arch Rock, the symbol of Anacapa and the Channel Islands.
Sea birds are everywhere, especially from April to July, when countless Western gulls nest on the islets -- sometimes almost in the middle of the trail -- and chicks hatch by the thousands.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, June 25, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Channel Islands: An article in the June 22 Travel section story, "Off-Shore Eden," about vacationing in the Channel Islands said Anacapa was east of Ventura. The island is southwest of the city. Also, an accompanying story said that San Miguel Island was the farthest from the mainland; it is the farthest from Ventura.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 29, 2008 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Channel Islands: A June 22 article about vacationing in the Channel Islands said Anacapa is east of Ventura. The island is southwest. Also, an accompanying story said that San Miguel Island was the farthest from the mainland; it is the farthest from Ventura.
My early May visit was in the middle of the nesting season, and angry gulls were very vocal; I could almost hear them cawing, "Get away from my nest." I had brought a picnic lunch and ate it near the island lighthouse, ignoring the bossy birds.
We boarded the boat for the trip back to Ventura in the late afternoon, and I took my usual seat on the top deck, watching for marine life. In the distance, I spotted a whale breaching. I didn't think much of it; whales usually breach only a few times. By the time you reach them, they're long gone. But this big boy of planet ocean hadn't seen that script.
He kept on breaching, propelling his 45-ton body out of the water again and again. I counted as our boat neared. The whale, a humpback, kept flying out of the water, then slapping back down in backward somersaults.
Our captain stopped so we could watch. Twenty times, 25 times. Other people on deck started to count with me. No one, including captain, crew or naturalist, had seen anything like it, they said. Once in a while, our new friend would take a mini-break, rolling over on his back to expose his white underbelly, then wave his pectoral fins languorously at us.
I kept counting. When the whale reached 40 jumps, the captain headed for home. I could see the acrobatic whale for a while, though, and before he faded from sight, I counted 49 breaches.
I know this sounds like a whale of a tale. But it's not. It's a true Channel Islands tale.
Just call me Ishmael.
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California's offshore wilderness
Though relatively near nerve-popping L.A., Channel Islands National Park is unspoiled and unsullied, rising abruptly from the sea off Southern California. Beyond the cliffs is a wealth of natural treasures. The islands range from one to 96 square miles and harbor life as diverse as microscopic plankton and the blue whale, the largest animal on Earth.
San Miguel Island
Details: San Miguel, 55 miles west of Ventura, is the island farthest from the mainland. Rough seas are common; only a few public boat trips are scheduled annually.
Known for: This is the back country of the Channel Islands, famous for its strong winds and thick fogs. Camping is for the hardy.
History: The Chumash Indians lived here for more than 11,000 years. In 1542, Juan Cabrillo and his men claimed the island for Spain; some say Cabrillo died here.
What to see and do: Hike to the caliche forest to see eerie sand castings of ancient vegetation; check out the beach at Cuyler Harbor; take a 16-mile hike to Point Bennett to see hundreds of elephant seals.
Santa Rosa Island
Details: Santa Rosa, 40 miles from Ventura, is the second largest of the Channel Islands. Strong winds often buffet it, but boat service is frequent during summer and fall.
Known for: Its rare Torrey pine forest and stunning beaches, including Water Canyon Beach.
History: Humans lived here for more than 13,000 years. Ranching was prevalent until just a few years ago; the former owners still operate a pricey hunting camp a few months of the year.
What to see and do: The campground here is first class with flush toilets, shelters and water. Hike along ridges and beaches, or go on a cross-island tour with a ranger. Kayaking is for pros only.
Santa Cruz Island
Details: With 96 square miles, Santa Cruz is California's largest island and the park's most popular. Boat service is daily almost year round.
Known for: Its sea caves include some of the largest in the world. Kayakers, snorkelers (bring a wet suit) and divers love it. Birders visit from around the world to see the island scrub-jay.
History: The island was named for a priest's staff accidentally left here during a 1769 expedition. Chumash Indians lived here for 9,000 years; ranching took place until just a few years ago. The island is owned by the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service.