Whale watching in the Santa Barbara Channel

Whale watching in the Santa Barbara Channel

How to earn your sea legs in an eight-hour tour

By Michael Sullivan 07/05/2012

Some people climb mountains. Others do marathons. For those whose endurance levels aren’t quite as high, there is always the leisurely stroll through a garden or a nice whale watching tour to get your natural kicks out of life. Little did I know, however, that “nice” whale watching tours can be radically unpredictable. When the wind and the sea are sparring for dominance, such an experience isn’t for the faint of heart, and especially not for those with weak stomachs. If there is one term to describe an eight-hour whale watching tour on the Santa Barbara Channel, it would be rugged.


It started off innocently enough. My son and I had packed a picnic lunch and brought a few books for the downtime between the Ventura Harbor and out near Santa Rosa Island where humpback and blue whales feed on abundant krill every summer. At the dock, dozens of people were waiting to board Island Packers’ two catamarans, which transport tourists to Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands. For the cetacean lovers, passengers remain on board to complete an eight-hour round-trip tour to find the elusive creatures.


Though my son and I had been advised to take Dramamine (motion sickness medication), I was confident we could handle whatever Mother Nature was willing to dish out. The truth of the situation is that too many episodes of Deadliest Catch can often lead to desensitization — if those guys can handle 30-foot waves for days at a time, surely the Average Joe can handle a few white caps. Wrong. I will spare you the details, but let’s just say, several weak stomachs will make one realize that a good trip can go bad quickly without the proper planning.


Regardless of the harsh reality of weak stomachs, once they begin to settle, the trip takes on a life of its own. As the islands came into sight, they were breathtaking. Surrounded by crystal green waters, sail and fishing boats rocked idly, anchored in the bays of Santa Cruz Island. The coves, with their small sandy beaches, were surreal, empty of visitors, unlike the beaches along the county’s coast. The hills were covered in greenery and flowers that end abruptly along jagged cliffs dropping into the sea. It was nature, raw, free of development, in its purest form with the exception of a small ranch house and a pier in Prisoner’s Harbor. Legend has it, convicts from Mexico were taken to Santa Cruz Island and left there. When officials came back to check on them a short time later, they were gone.


After taking in the scenery of Santa Cruz, the captain steered us across the channel to Santa Rosa Island in search of whales. Between Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands, we were advised to keep an eye on the horizon for spouts of water possibly blasting nearly 30 feet into the air. A few curious sea lions circled our boat. A small pod of dolphins surfed the catamaran’s waves. Unfortunately, no whales this time around. The captain, however, wasn’t going to let that get us down.


If you are a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, then you are sure to enjoy your whale watching trip because you will get the firsthand experience of Painted Cave, as seen in beginning of the first installment of the series. The captain maneuvered the catamaran up to the Painted Cave, which is creepily curious and magnificent, all at the same time. Slowly, we floated inside the cavern with the engine rumbling, sending deep groans throughout the cavern. We took in all its majesty, with the various colors and the crystal green lagoon.


From there we headed to Anacapa Island. There, we saw the small coves of sea lions, barking and coming onto shore to warm themselves. While other islands have larger populations, the smaller coves of Anacapa Island provide a home for the young males that have been pushed out of their packs elsewhere. At the eastern tip of Anacapa, there are the famous arch and lighthouse — the lighthouse was actually the last lighthouse ever to be built on the West Coast.
It was time to venture home after the brief tour of Anacapa. I had thought of all that had happened that day. All the good, the bad, the sweat and tears and occasional vomit. I thought of Mother Nature in her purest form. I thought of all the animals swimming below, the vastness of our ocean, the people who had once lived on the Channel Islands. Though we didn’t get to see what was intended, it was so much more. If you are looking for a rugged adventure, a trip where you will earn your sea legs, go whale watching with Island Packer’s this summer. The experience was well worth it. And don’t forget the Dramamine. 


Blue and humpback whales can be found around the Channel Islands June through October. For more information on whale watching and island tours, go to www.islandpackers.com or call 642-1393.

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