By J.C. Lewis, Travel Writer
When you’re stuck in traffic on a Southern California freeway, it’s easy to forget about the exceptional marine environment flanking our shore just miles away, much of it protected by the remarkable Channel Islands National Park. The park is home to more than 2,000 plant and animal species, 145 of which are found nowhere else on Earth. It’s shocking that, while adjacent to one of the largest urban areas in the world, Channel Islands is one of the least-visited of America’s National Parks.
Marine life in the channel, spotted often within minutes of leaving the shore on a whale-watching vessel, includes abundant California sea lions, thousand-strong pods of common dolphins, hefty and prehistoric-looking Risso’s dolphins, blue whales on their migration in summer, and in winter months, Pacific grey whales traveling between their summer feeding grounds in Alaska and their breeding grounds in Baja, Mexico.
Now is prime time to drive up to Santa Barbara for a day or weekend trip, the highlight of which should be a whale-watching trip on the Condor Express. Based at the harbor in beautiful Santa Barbara for more than 25 years, the Condor Express offers four-hour tours across the channel in search of grey whales, with sightings of many other species expected as a delightful bonus. On its “Wonders of Our National Parks” documentary, The Discovery Channel called the Santa Barbara Channel one of the 10 best places in the world to view wildlife. My recent trip proved this to be quite accurate.
We were fortunate to take a whale-watching trip on the Condor Express on a sunny, cloud-free day when the Pacific was uncommonly smooth and clear. These perfect conditions became apparent with our first wildlife encounter — thousands of common dolphins, mothers and babies among them, dancing in the waves of the boat with what must be glee. It wasn’t long before we were following the distant spout of a grey whale, which stuck within viewing distance for more than an hour, disappearing for several minutes at a time before stealthily popping back up. A pod of a dozen or so Risso’s dolphins was next. According to our captain, such a lively display as we saw, remaining within sight for a significant while before swimming on, was an unusual treat. These large, snub-nosed dolphins were marked by scars, caused by vigorous play amongst themselves, we were told.
A bonus sight during a Condor Express trip, weather permitting, is an up-close visit to Santa Cruz, the largest of the Channel Islands at about 96 square miles. Its coastline is pocked by rugged cliffs, coves and caves, including the Painted Cave, one of the deepest and largest sea caves in the world. Our captain nestled up to the cave’s opening so we could see the colors painted on the cave’s walls by lichens and algae. Beyond the point of visibility, the cave stretched for almost a quarter of a mile and is 100 feet wide.
One more treat nature provided us that day, just before the return leg back to Santa Barbara, was a small group Dall’s porpoises, which resemble small orcas and dart at blink-and-you’ll miss them speed. And in a matter of seconds, they were gone.
The Condor Express is designed for stability and comfort, with a spacious observation deck and plenty of indoor seating, as well as a full bar and galley offering excellent burgers and sandwiches. With chilly breezes on even on the warmest day, indoor seating is a welcome option. Volunteer naturalists accompany every voyage, offering plenty of interesting information about the wildlife you’re viewing. Visit www.condorexpress.com for details.