Santa Cruz Island

Santa Cruz Island
Santa Cruz Island.  Photo by Bill Dewey


For the last four years, I have written about Santa Barbara’s seasons, landscapes, and sometimes history. But what has really commanded my imagination during all this time have been the Channel Islands.

On infrequent childhood visits to Santa Barbara during the summer to visit my grandmother’s apartment, two blocks from the beach, or my cousin’s house in the hills, I usually came alone from Oakland on the Southern Pacific Daylight train.

I have no recollection of seeing the islands. Even though mountainous Santa Cruz Island was only 25 miles offshore, it, and its neighboring islands, were usually hidden by a bank of fog.

What I remember most was the beach, the bright city lights from my cousin’s house, the pale flakes of ash that my aunt said were coming from a fire in the mountains.

Satellite View

Not until I was an adult, when two of my three children settled in Santa Barbara, and I often flew south to visit them, did the islands became familiar to me. Most often, the plane approaching the airport made a wide arc over the ocean and the islands so as to land into the prevailing wind from the northwest.

From then on, I was eager to find some way of getting out to the islands. Santa Cruz Island, the largest, was mostly privately owned by the Stanton family of Los Angeles. The second largest island, Santa Rosa Island was owned and operated as a cattle ranch by Vail and Vickers, whose boats sometimes brought cattle to the mainland at Santa Barbara. San Miguel, the northernmost island off Point Conception, a windy place surrounded by a turbulent sea, was famous mostly for its huge population of seals and sea lions, drawn to the cold, upwelled water rich in nutrients.

I remembered from the family stories that both my mother and father as children had visited Santa Cruz Island. Before she died in 1981, I asked my mother to tell me her story.

On lined yellow paper, she wrote in her spidery hand: “When I was a small girl the trip to the Santa Barbara islands was a great adventure. One time my mother, grandmother and little brother went to Santa Cruz Island in a fishing boat. As The Channel was very rough that day, the deep dips into the troughs of the waves were terrifying to all of us. The kindly Italian fisherman tried to reassure us but we did not retain our equilibrium until we landed safely on the island.

Eatons Resort
Eaton’s Resort at Pelican Bay – 1920

At that time, the only accommodations on Santa Cruz Island consisted of tents with wooden floors.* At night we could hear the wild hogs rooting around in the under brush which was scary. The food in the dining tent was plain but good with plenty of fresh fish.


A highlight of our stay was the trip into the blue caves. One entered their inner fastnesses in row boats. These caves were accessible only at low tide and in quiet waters. Within them, the water was a brilliant blue which became darker the further in we ventured. It was thrilling to trail one’s hand which yielded a ghostly phosphorescence. Back home again I had much to tell my less venturesome playmates.” – Elaine Adrian Willoughby

Sea Cave
Sea Cave

I knew less about my father’s trip (or trips) to Santa Cruz Island. There was something about a borrowed Boston whaler, and that the wild boar they shot was so tightly wedged in a narrow canyon that they had to butcher it on site and deliver it piecemeal to the boat.

I can imagine that Santa Barbara in the early 1900s, with less than 10,000 inhabitants, was an ideal place for a boy to grow up. He and several co-conspirator built a shack up San Roque canyon until a wild-fire destroyed it. I have a small photo of him as a young teenager with his dad on a mountain trail, he with high boots, a slouch hat, and a canvas rucksack hanging heavily off his shoulders.

Now it was my turn.



Hugh examines a damsel fly

HUGH RANSON – birder, teacher, and writer who writes the Saturday column “Bird Watch” for the Santa Barbara News Press. He began his bird watching as a boy in England.

In the last five years, he has taken up the study of dragonflies and during lunch breaks can often be found at a local pond with his net and camera.

Be sure and read an except from “Bird Watch” in the Blog “This Time for Work.”


Bill Dewey in his plane at the Santa Barbara airport

BILL DEWEY  Bill has been photographing the California landscape since the early 1970s and has been flying since the 1980s. Some of his favorite subjects include the California Channel Islands, Carrizo plain, Baja California, and the rural California landscape. His work is widely published and shown in various galleries and museums. His aerial photos begin each my Santa Cruz Island blogs.

See some of his glorious photos on his website –


Channel Islands

The Channel islands from the air, with Anacapa in the foreground, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Island in the background. Photo by Bill Dewey


The Archipelago of the four Northern Channel Islands included westernmost San Miguel Island, Santa Rosa Island, the mountainous Santa Cruz Island, and finally little Anacapa with its “tail” of broken islets trailing behind. Now that I’ve settled in Santa Barbara where I most likely will conclude my life, I view the islands from the mainland, always drawn outward toward them. I see them from my daughter’s house high on the hillside above Mission Canyon, most often reclining on the horizon in their bed of haze. Sometimes the fog obscures them from view altogether, or there are times when the vapors are swept away by a dry north wind, and I can clearly see their cliffs and coves.

Over the years I’ve collected my own experiences of the islands. Last year, I crossed the choppy Channel on an Island Packers boat out of Ventura Harbor. I was lucky enough to have secured an invitation to the annual mass, thanks to Marla Daily, the head of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation.

Mass (1)
Mass at the chapel

But my awareness of the islands, particularly Santa Cruz Island, began as a child when I read The Channel Islands of California, by Charles F. Holder, published in 1910 which I claimed from my parents’ library.  The book with its turquoise-blue linen cover and the decorative drawings of the flying fish is now on my Santa Barbara bookshelf.  I still love to reread the description of the ride in a horse-drawn carriage up the wild canyon to the Central Valley from the anchorage at Prisoners’ Harbor.

From “The Channel Islands of California”

Quoting from the book: “From the sea, Santa Cruz Island is a jumble of lofty hills and mountains, with deep gorges and canons winding in every direction.

Hidden away in the very heart of the island is an ideal ranch, with a pronounced foreign atmosphere, in a climate as perfect as that of Avalon to the south.”

Holder“Seated in the trap, with our host holding the reins, we turned into a gorge… the road wound upward; the horses now splashing through the summer stream beneath gnarled and picturesque oaks, now out into the open, where the sun poured down through rifts in the cañon beneath a sky of tender blue, plunging into the narrow cañon again, where walls grew lofty and precipitous, shutting out the glare of sunlight; …”Three miles of this, and the charming canon road came to an abrupt end. The canon sides and the mountains suddenly melted away, and the horse dashed into a long, rolling valley, where the air was like velvet on the cheek and an incense of flowers and vines filled the nostrils.

Green truckBut last Sunday it was in the cab of battered green truck driven by one of Marla’s relatives. Several trucks of various vintages were waiting for passengers who had disembarked from the boat tied up at the end of the green trucks brought us up from the boat long pier. I carefully climbed up the ladder, aided by the crew, to the rough planks of the pier. I was more uncertain than usual because I had fallen on the deck of the boat when a sudden lurch had tossed me down on my back.

Prisoners Harbor
Approaching the pier at Prisoners’ Harbor

I’d been pulled back upright without apparent injury though my confidence in staying upright had been challenged.

The streambed was dry the first mile or so but then we encountered water. We forded the stream several times “before the canyon sides and the mountains suddenly melted away.”

Ranch house
The ranch house in the Central Valley.  Photo by Sally Isaacson.  Courtesy of the SB Botanic Garden

It was different from when Holder had made the same trip a least a hundred years earlier. No longer a working ranch, most of the island now belongs to the Nature Conservancy. The vineyards which once traced the contours of the hills had been removed. Gone were the horses, cattle, and sheep. The ranch house was no longer ornamented with the iron grilles forged in the ranch forge.


The people this day were mainlanders who had come to enjoy the annual festivities, attend mass, drink wine and feast on the barbecue before returning to the mainland on the four o’clock boat.

A trip on Island Packers from Ventura to Santa Cruz Island

Leaving the mainland behind
Approaching Santa Cruz Island, Anacapa to the Left
Giant Kelp
Giant Kelp. Photo by Bill Dewey
Hills surrounding the Central Valley

I mostly kept to myself, listening for bird songs and calls and finally spotting an Island fox. Mostly I tried to recapture in these dry hills the island of my dreams.

(First published as “Island Exuberance” for Santa Barbara Magazine spring 94)

Near Christy Ranch
Near Christy Ranch.  Photo by Bill Dewey

I’m drawn to all islands, but especially to those that lie off a mainland shore, like the Channel Islands. At times they beguile you, half hidden behind veils of fog, and at other times they abandon subtlety, revealing in dazzling detail their pale sea cliffs and shadowed canyons.


high road
High road on the red rock ridge with Santa Rosa Island in the distance  Photo by Steve Windhager  Courtesy of the SB Botanic Garden

I don’t pretend to understand the power these islands have on me. Maybe it was the epic tales of sea voyages and island landfalls that fueled my imagination as a young reader. Or the stories told by my parents, who were raised in Santa Barbara. I made my first crossing to Santa Cruz Island, the largest island of the northern group, 25 years ago on a three-masted schooner. Since then I have managed to return often, usually as a participant in natural history groups or as a Nature Conservancy volunteer. Last spring, I volunteered as a plant monitor, and saw the island once again, this time from the back of a jeep as we lurched over ridgetop dirt roads on our way to inventory plants.

To the north was a mountain range of ruddy-colored volcanic rock. To the south toward the open sea rose a conical mountain peak of dazzling white rock know as the Blanca Volcanics. The island is, in fact, made up of two disparate land masses, that came from different directions and are sutured together by a fault know as the Central Valley. It is not hard to believe that this wild jumbled Technicolor landscape is still on the move, sliding northward toward the Aleutians. Some 18,000 years ago when the ocean level was lower, all four islands of the northern group were joined together in one super-island scientists refer to as “Santarosae”. Through the islands’ evolution many configurations developed, but they have not been joined to the mainland, at least not in recent geological times.

The plants and animals we see on Santa Cruz Island today came on the winds, were carried by ocean currents, or were brought ashore by human visitors. Salamanders and other stowaways came ashore on the same log rafts that the Chumash fashioned into canoes. Once on the island, many animals and plants have evolved distinctive forms

Island Fox.  Photo by Joni Kelley.  Courtesy of the SB Botanic Garde

On our trips around the island, we saw the little island fox that weighs barely three pounds. Other species are larger than their mainland cousins – examples of what scientists call gigantism. The Santa Cruz Island jay, for example, is bluer and 25 percent larger than the mainland Scrub Jay. Toyons and elderberries are shrubs or small trees on the mainland, but they can grow to 40-60 feet on the island. Maybe it’s the temperature, moist climate or lack of competitive species. I call it island exuberance. There are fewer species too, fewer kinds of birds, two types of snakes, and no burrowing animals at all. The four terrestrial animals are endemic, meaning they are found no place else.

This article and photo was excepted from “Bird Watch,” published each Saturday in the Santa Barbara News Press and written by Hugh Ranson.

Santa Cruz Island: the California Galapagos


One of the acorn-eating island scrub-jays.  Photo by Hugh Ranson

I recently ventured out to Santa Cruz Island in search of migrant birds. While I didn’t see a great variety of migrants, there were enough resident species to keep me well entertained. Island foxes, which have made quite a comeback, trotted about throughout the day, seemingly unconcerned by human intrusion. Another island endemic, the island scrub jay, was much in evidence.
Hundreds of birders venture out to the island each year to see the jay. Why? It’s a species found nowhere else on earth. The island scrub jay was once considered conspecific with the California scrub jay, the familiar jay found commonly along our coast. It was officially recognized as a separate species in 1998. It is larger, much more brilliantly blue, has a larger beak, a different voice, and different social habits than its coastal cousin.
There are at least a couple of theories as to how the jay made its way to the island and began the slow differentiation from the mainland species. Jays are weak fliers and do not travel across large bodies of water. One thought is that jays made their way by hitching rides on floating vegetation. Another is that during a period of glaciation, when sea levels were lower, jays were able to cross the much narrower channel. At any rate, it is thought island jays have been isolated from the mainland for over 150,000 years.
Santa Cruz Island has a healthy population of jays estimated at 2,300 individuals. However, this population is considered vulnerable because of the small area of the island. There is the constant danger of fire, and more menacing still, the threat of West Nile Virus, to which corvids (jays are in the crow family) are particularly susceptible. Because of this latter threat, many of the jays have been captured and vaccinated.
It seems the island scrub jay is perhaps even more remarkable than we realized. Recently, biologist Kate Langin made a discovery that turned a theory of evolution on its head. She found that there are two separate populations of jays on the island, one that favors oak woodland, and one that inhabits pine forests. The oak-loving jays feed largely on acorns and have evolved shorter, stouter bills. The pine-inhabiting jays have longer, narrower bills, adapted for extracting pine nuts from pinecones. Even where pine and oak woodland are mere yards apart, the two populations appear to remain separate.
Charles Darwin theorized that in order for species to differentiate, like the famous Galapagos finches, there needs to be geographic separation. The island jays appear to be the first known instance where this theory doesn’t hold.
If you haven’t yet made it out to Santa Cruz Island, it’s time you did! Island Packers of Ventura run daily trips to the island. It takes a little over an hour to reach the island, and there are excellent opportunities for viewing marine mammals and birds on the crossing. There are two anchorages served by the company, Scorpion and Prisoners. You have an excellent chance of seeing the jay at Prisoners. It used to be that they were rarely seen at Scorpion, but in recent years they have become more common there, frequently foraging in the campground. I saw several there on my last visit. Scorpion also has many choices for coastal walking trails

Ironwood Grove.  Photo by Steve Windhager.  Courtesy of the SB Botanic Gardens

The scalloped-edged ironwood leaf resembles the splayed, scaly foot of some prehistoric bird. The light ripples as the tall trees sway in the sea breeze. In the presence of these shaggy-barked survivors, you can imagine these to be sacred groves. Islands have a way of compressing — and enlarging – human emotions, and island tales are replete with mysterious and sometimes tragic human stories. In the singularity of an island, you confront your own separateness, you own uniqueness. It’s been almost a year since my last island visit. Every day here on the mainland, I climb the hill behind my house to look seaward, hoping for a glimpse of the dark shapes on the horizon – elated when I can see them, a little lonely when they are obscured by fog or clouds.


island shrub jay
Island Shrub-Jay
california shrub jay
California Shrub-Jay

The Island Shrub-Jay was once thought to be a sub-species of our common coastal California Shrub-Jay, but now is recognized as a separate species. The Channel Islands have been separated for eons from the mainland. Jays being weak flyers, and with 25 miles of channel separating them, the Island Shrub-Jay has had a long time to develop its separate characteristics.

The Island jay is over all bigger (the beak especially so), the plumage is brighter and bluer and its cheek is near-black instead of gray.



5 thoughts on “Santa Cruz Island

  1. I live inBerkeley where I met Phil’s at birdwatching classes. My sister lives in Santa Barbara. I too love islands and want to visit all the Channel Islands. Beautiful writing, a joy to read!

  2. I finally got around to viewing this. I haven’t been to Prisoners area, just Scorpion. But I will always enjoy Santa Cruz Island. Thanks, Phila for putting this together with your very readable prose! – Janet

    Sent from my iPad


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