On a cool, fog shrouded Monday the monkey joined a gaggle of 4th graders for the most anticipated field trip of the year: A journey to Anacapa Island. Part of Channel Islands National Park, Anacapa Island is only accessable by boat. No people live on the island and there is no fresh water. To get onto the island intrepid adventurers must climb 157 stairs up a steep cliff to reach the visitor center. Unless you use an airplane and a parachute, there is no other way to get there.
The name Anacapa is derived from a Chumash Native American word (Anypakh) meaning deception or mirage. It’s an appropriate name because in the gloomy June fogs that swirl about this volcanic island the land seems to be constantly changing shape.
One of the smallest of the Channel Islands, Anacapa was formed from lava uprising from a rift in the tectonic plate that makes up the sea floor. The volcanic rock is constantly being sculpted by wind and waves into more than 30 sea caves, incredible arches (some go completely through the island!) and giant holes in the rock.
The island is home to one of the largest nesting areas of the western gull. Kongo was lucky to be here in early June because the birds were nesting and the next generation of western gulls were hatching. It was a pretty amazing sight to see tens of thousands of birds in their nests squawking at the interloping 4th graders.
Many of the nests were built only inches from the trail and the birds can get quite stressed when people come by. Some birds will dive bomb visitors and the way to protect yourself is simply to hold your hand above your head and they birds seem to get the idea not to crash into you. The class was led by a naturalist who made sure everyone knew that if the birds are squawking you keep walking.
The class has been studying geology this year so the island trip was a perfect way to end their studies about local landforms. The volcanic rock offers up fantastical shapes for viewing and provides perfect homes for nesting sea birds. National Park efforts to remove non-native species — in the past there have been sheep, cats, and even rats — have been highly successful and the sea birds have no natural predators on the island. Occasional eagles or hawks from the mainland do fly over for an occasional Sunday brunch when the chicks are born.
This island is also home to a unique flower not found anywhere else. It’s the giant coreopsis and it used to be quite prolific but is still recovering from when the sheep used to roam the island.
The birds love nesting in the flowers as they provide perfect camouflage for the baby chicks. Western gulls form monogamous pairs and return to the same nest year after year. Interestingly, it is the male bird that chooses the nesting site. Both birds take turns sitting on the eggs and feeding the chicks until they are old enough to fend for themselves.
The Coast Guard build a light station on the island in the 1930s. Today the light is remotely controlled and does not require a lighthouse keeper. It must have been a lonely tour of duty for the families who tended the light.
The island has a colorful history. Several ship wrecks can be found around the island, the most famous being the side paddle steamer Winifred Scott, which crashed into the Middle Island at full speed on a foggy night in 1853. All 100 passengers survived and were rescued after a week but the ship’s large cargo of gold from the California Gold Rush has never been found.
On the West Island a hermit named Frenchy LeDreau lived in a cave for nearly 30 years eating lobsters and getting fresh water from condensed water dripping from the roof of his sea cave. He left the island in 1956 at the age of 80 after being injured in a fall. Rumors have it that Frenchy hid liquor for bootleggers during Prohibition.
Getting to and from the island is as much fun as roaming the rocks. The waters around Anacapa are teeming with sea life. Giant kelp forests surround the island and support hundreds of species of fish and marine life. Besides the birds, we saw California sea lions, dolphins, and a humpback whale!
A naturalist gave excellent talks about the island that included its history, birds, geology, and surrounding sea life.
You can get to the island via private boat or utilize the National Park concession Island Packers, which departs daily from Ventura Harbor. It’s about an hour boat ride depending on how often you stop to view whales and dolphins.
Travel safe. Have fun!