Story and photo by Chuck Graham

If you want transport to the Channel Islands National Park (CINP), you’ll have to get a ride on a private vessel, paddle a kayak or even swim to reach the windswept, volcanic isles, now more remote then ever.

The novel coronavirus that continues to grip the world has finally forced Island Packers, the ferry concessionaire of the CINP for the past 51 years, to suspend operations until at least April.

“Things have moved so fast,” said co-owner Cherryl Connally of the shutdown. “Just two weeks ago, company president Mark Connally and fleet manager Alex Brodie were in discussion with park superintendent Ethan McKinley about how to best provide the necessary safety precautions on our boats and operations.”

By Monday, March 16, the decision was made to cease operations. CINP, however, remains open, accessible only by private boaters or the self-propelled route.

Like so many other businesses throughout Ventura County, the economic slowdown affects everyone, patrons and employees. Island Packers’ decision to suspend operations wasn’t an easy one.

“Even with understanding employees, it was a tough decision,” said Connally. “We feel the responsibility to do right by our staff by both keeping them working and keeping them safe. When our staff shares their legitimate concerns of losing work and income, it’s real and it’s hard. This is our prime winter/spring season with spring break, students and families on vacation, migrating whales and wildflowers in bloom. People want to visit the Channel Islands.”

To keep moving forward, Island Packers and its crew will work on vessel and site maintenance, staying ready for when the crisis is over. There will be some work for the crew, who will continue to transport construction workers (10 to 20 passengers) to Santa Cruz Island for work on the new pier at Scorpion Anchorage. A reduced staff will continue to manage office duties.

COVID-19 means unchartered waters for so many, but over the decades Island Packers has a proven track record, enduring in many times of strife. It transported firefighters when Santa Cruz Island was on fire in the spring of 2017, and provided shuttle services when freeways were closed during the mudslides of January 2018. Pushing forward has always been the goal for a company that has brought over one million visitors to the rugged chain.

“Yes, it’s always something, so we have experience being flexible,” she said. “We are blessed to have a hard-working and dedicated staff we consider extended family. There is a real sense of pulling together in hard times that emerges during harsh weather, natural disasters and personal loss. Everyone wants to work but understands the need to follow these new guidelines to prevent the virus from spreading to our employees and our passengers.”

“We recognize our unique position in the community and are always willing to do our part,” Connally continued. “Having said that, we know we will get through this as well. We are grateful to have amazing management and employees who work together as a team thru these challenges.” 

Channel Islands National Park is open, but the visitor center at the end of Spinnaker Drive is closed to the public. Virtual tours of the kelp forests are available via webcam at Channel Islands Live. Popular webcams provide views of bald eagles and peregrine falcons, available through explore.org.