Speckled Nestlings on Anacapa

Western Gulls feeding

We’d been sailing for an hour, navigating through dense fog, when a clear patch of blue sky peeked through the window of Arch Rock near Anacapa Island. Today the island lived up to her Chumash Indian name, Ennepah (which means mirage or illusion). As if by magic, the silver fog lifted revealing a table-top mesa towering above us.

The second smallest island in the Channel Islands National Park suddenly seemed a long way off when we discovered it was a steep 157 steps to the top! “Just take your time” encouraged the Park Ranger who greeted us at the landing dock. With a steady pace we made the ascent within 10 minutes and were awestruck at what we found on top!

The serenity of the ocean 100 feet below had given way to harshly blowing winds carrying the incessant squawks of nesting gulls.Thousands of Western Gulls held sentineled watch over their nesting grounds loudly urging us to keep our distance from their dappled chicks still covered in downy feathers wandering sheepishly about cheeping for their next meal. Carefully, we embarked along the upward trail to the visitors center amidst a living carpet of birds!

Some would say Anacapa is barren, flat, and desolate but with every season’s metamorphosis,it live’s up to its name with an ever-changing landscape full of natural wonders. We had landed on the East end which is the only islet with an accessible point for hiking access. Staying on the path today would be assured for even slightly-too-long-a-glance at nesting chicks raised havoc among their parents. We quickly learned to dodge the rise and swoop of threatening overhead pecks and tried to avoid being targets for snowy white poop-plops. Sheepishly our group advanced forward amongst feathered guards. After a short orientation by the ranger we were free to discover on our own or explore with a naturalist guide.

Hiking the trail westward, numerous patches of dirt evidenced the removal of invasive ice plant originally introduced to the island by the U.S. Coast Guard during the 40s and 50s. The ground was peppered with small wind screens installed to help newly-planted native seedlings take hold. Later on we would see the island nursery where dedicated volunteers propagate native plants to help restore the vegetation which once included vast expanses giant yellow Coreopsis, palettes of Red Paintbrush, white Island Morning Glory, and pale island buckwheat.

Moving onward towards the cliff, we learned that the northern front of East Anacapa contains two marine protected areas. Sea lions and harbor seals barked from the beach at Cathedral Cove, and we could imagine the smallest of foraging nudibranchs, to immense whales feeding on plankton in the waters around Anacapa Island. The giant kelp forests within the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary are a fertile nursery ground for marine inhabitants where they can flourish free from human disturbance.

About two-thirds along the way, the dirt path beneath our feet became scattered with shells, a distant reminder of the Chumash Native American Indians and their ancestors who lived on these islands for nearly 13,000 years. Although no permanent settlements have been found on Anacapa (probably because of lack of a fresh water source) we know that the Chumash frequented this island for at least 5,000 years.

Arriving at Inspiration Point lookout we could see the craggy black ridges of volcanic rock separate into three small islets leading westward to the coastline of Santa Cruz Island, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. Distinctively separate from each other, the trio of East, Middle, and West Anacapa encompass five miles of wild terrain. We watched as flocks of Brown Pelicans soared with the wind in military-style formation, flapping their powerful wings in perfect unison, and on the distant peak, cormorants held their wings outstretched in the sun to dry. From this vantage point we could only wonder what gems of natural magic lie on the other four islands within the Channel Islands National Park and beyond.

Heading eastward again, we wandered through waves of sea gulls, passed the campground with its 7 primitive camp sites, stopping at the ridge overlooking Pinneped Point. With the sound of barking sea lions below we could see the Anacapa Island Lighthouse, a reminder that even amidst the pristine beauty, the wild ocean can’t be tamed. It was the wreck of the Winfield Scott on Anacapa’s northern shore in 1853 that started plans for building a lighthouse but it took until 1912 for the first light to be installed due to the Island’s isolation and remote access. After 20 years, the original beacon was replaced with a Fresnel lens and the U.S. Coast Guard manned the station for another 35 years. Today, the Anacapa Light Station is automated and unmanned, and maintained by the National Park Service and holds an historic listing among the National Register of Historic Places.

Back at the visitor’s center, a small exhibit includes the original lead-crystal Fresnal lens from the lighthouse, brochures, maps, and displays. Even though our hike has taken only a couple hours, the bustle of every day life seems far away and non-existent. The rugged wilderness has spoken in a voice of it’s own. It resonates with the depths of solitude and reverberates on the wings of song, where birds soar and ocean spray bestows a wild grace only found in nature. We wonder at how much or how little has changed with time on these isolated islands.

Heading down the launch ramp for departure, descending the 157 steps and heading out to sea, our adventure for the day fades in the distance but we are already planning our next visit. What mirage will this Chumash island of Illusion hold in store for us when we come next season to explore?

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Many more kayaking, snorkeling, diving, hiking adventures await. We can’t wait to discover more wonders of the Channel Islands.