Northern fur seals near Castle Rock, San Miguel Island. Photo by Chuck Graham
Story and photos by Chuck Graham
I left the ranger station at zero dark thirty with stiff south winds and pea soup fog sweeping over San Miguel. Looking over my right shoulder, I nearly hesitated. I almost aborted another solo circumnavigation while paddling what is arguably the most challenging, yet idyllic isle in the Northern Channel Islands, the third largest isle in the Channel Islands National Park.
Much like a northern elephant seal knows it must migrate thousands of miles from the Bering Strait of Alaska and beach itself on a narrow neck of sand at Point Bennett on San Miguel Island, as soon as I touch down on the breathtaking, pearly white, soft sands of Cuyler Harbor on the north side of the windswept islet, I know I need to kayak around 27 miles of coastline. I’m always fearful I’ll miss something if I don’t.
Scouring weather apps for wind, swell, fog, I’d searched for the most optimal weather window for another attempt kayaking around one of the most exposed islands off the California coast. Any knowledge is crucial, especially while trying to pull around Point Bennett, one of the most hair-raising places I’ve paddled throughout the Channel Islands National Park. A lot of times the reports are inaccurate; sometimes I just need to go to know.
Rounding the Castle
As I stood committed on the beach at Cuyler Harbor, nearby Prince Island, about a quarter mile east, was silhouetted in pre-dawn hues. It was time to go. I followed the swooping flight patterns of opportunistic elegant terns and glided northerly along Mordor-like cliffs.
Harris Point is the gnarled, craggy appendage that extends off the northern tip of San Miguel Island. It’s always a great indicator for what to expect during a potential circumnavigation.
On this day, swell and current boiled around its fringe. Turning the corner, I could see all the way beyond barren Castle Rock and Busted Balls Cove. The south wind was proving pesky but not building. The dense canopy of fog was lifting. I was all in, picked up my pace, and aimed toward seemingly lifeless Castle Rock.
At the spur of the moment, I decided to quickly paddle around Castle Rock. The south wind was barely a wisp, and the swell had faded from the day before. The gods were smiling on me at that point, as curious California sea lions porpoised towards me.
Deep, open water beneath gray skies added to my angst while pulling around Castle Rock, but I needed to do it. On one map, Castle Rock falls within a region known as “Shark Park.” Needless to say, I occasionally peered over each shoulder, hoping not to see anything trolling after me.
Dense kelp forests flourished nearby, a haven for sea life, fish, invertebrates and for me. It’s also a great place to take stock, eat, drink, and seek a path through all the frothy, uneven surf surrounding Point Bennett, which was awaiting me. From there I heard the surf roaring above the faint yelps, snorts, barks and bellows, pinniped proliferation reveling in the pelagic forces of nature.
As I drew closer, the cacophony of sounds (and smells) eventually overwhelmed the honing surf. I snuck inside of several exposed reefs, dodging foamy whitewater, pitching waves, my frenetic, uneven pace just enough to find a smidge of tranquility within a protected cove.
Congregation of epic proportions
San Miguel Island isn’t far away from the megalopolis that is Los Angeles, but it feels far, maybe worlds away. Nowhere else on this weathered isle does it feel like that more than at Point Bennett.
It has to do with the amount of marine mammals on those gritty windswept sands, a Mecca for six species of seals and sea lions carving out a swath of beach to breed and pup unencumbered. It’s one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth, and the largest congregation of pinnipeds on the planet.
“San Miguel Island, in general, but especially the west end of the island (Point Bennett) is a great place for pinnipeds primarily because the marine environment around the island is influenced by the California current,” said Tony Orr, research fisheries biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “Upwelling, and unobstructed prevailing northwest winds, which produce cold surface waters, fog and wind conditions, keep the island cool during the summer months when some of these species pup and breed.”
California sea lions, northern fur seals, harbor seals and northern elephant seals have bred and pupped there for decades, but most recently there’s been a couple of Guadalupe fur seals that have pupped there for the first time in 25 years. Steller sea lions still occasionally visit but haven’t pupped there since 1980. At the height of the year, there can be roughly 30,000 animals or more at Point Bennett.
As I snuck between Point Bennett and Cormorant Rock, it felt as if the hardest portion of the trip was behind me. I entered Adams Cove where the length of the beach was cloaked in pinnipeds, but the turquoise blue waters were also teeming with extremely playful, curious northern fur seals and California sea lion pups.
There was just enough swell converging at the sand spit from two directions inside Adams Cove to allow for frolicking pups to bodysurf chest-high waves, and body-whomp up onto a steep berm where pups were swept upwards toward hauled-out pinnipeds sunning along the shore.
“It is a special place to see the diversity of species, as well as the quantity of each species is absolutely amazing,” continued Orr. “That’s what I’m most impressed by. And to think that this place is so close to a huge metropolis, but few people know about it or have visited the island. Incredible!”
From my kayak it was plainly obvious that most, if not all, the pups in the water had never seen a kayaker before. It was Oct. 17, and all these animals were mostly born in June. Just a few months old, there isn’t much boat traffic around this island, certainly not any kayakers. So, their inquisitiveness soared. I didn’t see a single vessel the entire day.
After leaving Point Bennett and Adams Cove, I paddled southeast, riding a favorable down-island current propelling me past Tyler Bight. From there I aimed toward Crook Point, the long, prominent finger jutting southwesterly toward the open ocean.
Pocket beaches abound all along Crook Point. Cormorants paraded across a knobby marine terrace. Migrating elegant terns roost and feed here for fall and winter. They enjoyed light, favorable northwest winds as they swooped on and off pristine beaches.
Nearly every beach was an ideal haul-out site for subadult northern elephant seals. At this point in their young lives, they weigh 400 to 600 pounds. While the seals flipped sand on their broad backs, the terns swooped overhead, seeking baitfish on their low, angular flights. I also paddled past surf scoters, eared grebes, and phalaropes before rounding Cardwell Point.
To the east and three miles off my right shoulder was the San Miguel Passage; beyond that was Santa Rosa Island. Paddling was sublime as gentle currents from two directions converged, forcing swells into oblong fringes bound to crash into wave-battered cliffs. The waters surrounding Cardwell and Nichols Points were some of the clearest around the entire islet.
The steep, sandy berm at Nichols Point lay ahead. It was crowded there with western gulls and elegant terns roosting in the late afternoon sun. Harbor seals, California sea lions and northern elephant seals also shared the colossal swath of beach.
As the surf heaved onshore and the swoosh of a surging, incoming tide propelled my kayak northward, there was Prince Island again, just outside Cuyler Harbor and the completion of my circumnavigation. It had been nearly eight hours since I hesitated to wait out a perfect weather window, taunted by San Miguel Island once again.
San Miguel Island is subject to strong winds and sudden changes in weather and swell conditions, and should only be undertaken by knowledgeable and experienced kayakers. For more on this island, visit the Channel Islands National Park website at www.nps.gov/chis, or speak to a National Park Service representative at the Visitor Center, 1901 Spinnaker Dr., Ventura, or by calling 805-658-5730.
Transportation to San Miguel Island is offered by Island Packers, 1691 Spinnaker Dr., Suite 105B, Ventura, 805-642-1393, islandpackers.com.