March 01, 2016

Photo Essay: The Island That Prisoners Pioneered

Santa Cruz Island has a similar history to Santa Rosa Island in terms of ranching, habitat devastation thanks to feral pigs and sheep, and endangered and nearly extinct species of both flora and fauna (including the island fox).

But, like Santa Rosa, it's on the road to recovery—and it's been free of pigs since 2006.

It's considered one of those great "day trip destinations" of the Channel Islands; but for me, it's so frustrating to take a 25-mile boat ride out (which, in our case, took four hours with all of the birding we did)...

...come up ashore at Prisoner's Harbor for an hour and a half just to see what we can see, and then turn around and take another long boat ride back. I don't even like doing Catalina in one day.

But if this was how I was going to get onto Santa Cruz—the largest and most rugged of the Channel Islands, named by the Spanish after a "sacred cross"—so be it.

And it turns out, there's a lot to see, although it's only the eastern 24 percent of the island that you can visit without a permit. (Access to the remaining 76 percent is tightly controlled by the Nature Conservancy.)

Fortunately, there are some historic ranch buildings that are close to the Prisoner's Harbor pier...

...including a red brick double barn that dates back to 1887.

Beyond that, most of the hiking trails would take longer than an hour and a half to tackle as an out-and-back...

...but then again, most of the people on our boat trip to Santa Cruz were there for birds, not trails.

After all, we'd docked at the island to look for the Island Scrub Jay, endemic to this particular island.

They're not too hard to find as long as you can recognize its call, which isn't exactly musical.

After spotting our one scrub jay, we climbed up one of the old dirt ranch roads that, if we had continued on it, would eventually lead to Del Norte Camp.

Given the sun and the heat and the time constraints, we were happy to take it at a leisurely pace, taking in the ocean view...

...and marveling at the Giant Coreopsis plants...

...whose stalks are so sturdy, they really are like little trees.

While we stuck to the National Parks Service side of the island, being sure not to trespass onto Nature Conservancy property...

...we spotted a lone island fox, hunting for somebody's hiking pack to root through.

Although our time on the island was all too brief...

...we did have enough time to climb the Pelican Bay Trail (which technically is maintained by Nature Conservancy, but was on this side of the No Trespassing sign)...

...up to Harvey's Lookout, where 19th and early 20th century island watchmen would look for ships in the channel through a telescope.

It's just one indication of the historical commercial use of Santa Cruz Island, which more or less started when a bunch of Mexican prisoners were dropped off here as part of the plan to increase California's Mexican presence after gaining independence from Spain.

Those convicted criminals were the pioneers of the modern settlement of Santa Cruz Island, and they quickly went to work.

At the end of the day—unlike the birds that flew here and never left, or the foxes that hitchhiked or rafted their way over—we had a boat to take us back to the mainland.

But it wasn't until that late afternoon trip through the swells that we saw the most amazing sight of our trip: an unbelievably dense and active pod of dolphins that swam right behind us...

...breaching and diving us if to usher us to safety with a grand send-off of splashing dorsal and tail fins.

Of course, one visit to Santa Cruz Island won't be enough, since there's apparently lots more to see at Scorpion Bay, Potato Harbor, and Smuggler's Cove.

Which of the Channel Islands will I hit next?

I can't wait to find out.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Birding the Channel Islands
Photo Essay: The Island the Ranchers Left Behind
Photo Essay: The Wildflowers, Oaks, and Rare Pines of Santa Rosa Island
An Island Calling
Photo Essay: Up and Into Catalina's Wild Interior

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