These diamonds remain in the rough
SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, CALIF.
Ask any denizen of this attractive coastal town about the Channel Islands or the sanctuary encompassing the surrounding waters, and he or she might look at you blankly.
For years, many people in nearby Santa Barbara, frequently ranked one of America's top 10 tourist destinations, haven't had a clue about the 1,252-square-nautical-mile Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, even though it was established in 1980.
Few people - except for the most adventurous - have seen up close the stunning natural beauty of these islands, which are really the tops of submerged mountains.
And not many know of the rich plant and animal life that has developed on the islands since they were cut off from the mainland during the last Ice Age. Bird species, for example, number in the tens of thousands.
Both conservationists and fishermen have a keen interest in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which is made up of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara islands.
And they should: The waters that swirl around the islands mix warm and cool currents, making for a very fertile environment. Abundant populations of fish and invertebrates flourish, along with a rich diversity of plant life, including forests of giant kelp. The rich waters are also home to many larger species - seals, sea lions, fish, dolphins, and whales.
In recent years, however, tensions have flared up between fishermen and conservationists striving to protect marine life.
Despite the sanctuary designation, the temptation is strong for fishermen - some commercial but mostly recreational - to help themselves to lobster, crab, white sea bass, and squid, among other catches. Consequently, the numbers of native species have dwindled.
This concerns environmentalists, but it is not the first time humans have made an impact on the islands.
From the early 1900s until after World War II, the Channels were used as ranches. And the use of the pesticide DDT wiped out the islands' native bald eagle population. They were replaced by non- native golden eagles, which have upset the ecological balance by reducing the islands' fox population by 90 percent since 1994.
This past April, the California Department of Fish and Game announced regulations to limit fishing in 12 newly created "marine protected areas" in state waters near the sanctuary.
Gradually, as awareness of the ecological issues grows, more people are making the trip by powerboat across often rough seas from either Santa Barbara or national park headquarters in Ventura to the islands.
Some are surprised by what they find. The Channel Islands are no Hilton Head or Martha's Vineyard. Because there are no hotels or restaurants on any of the islands, visitors must bring food, water, and sleeping bags with them.
But that doesn't bother those who are hoping to escape the hustle and bustle on the mainland, to enjoy a little solitude amid some of the most spectacular natural scenery anywhere, and to catch a glimpse of native flora or fauna.
The ecotourist experience sometimes begins en route when travelers spot one of the 28 species of marine mammals observed here at different times of year.
They include dolphins and several types of whales - blue, humpback, orca, and gray (25,000 of which migrate through these waters annually).
Of the five islands, Santa Cruz - which at 62,000 acres and 96 square miles is the largest - and Anacapa - which is only 12 miles from the mainland - are the most visited. They sit beside each other, but their topography is a world apart.
Anacapa is known for its five-mile-long spine of rock that emerges dramatically from the sea, which led the Chumash Indians to name the island "Anyapakh" or "mirage." Visitors with a taste for rugged adventure, as well as scuba divers, are drawn to its sea caves, arches, tide pools, and kelp forests.
The landscape of Santa Cruz is more diverse, with softly rolling hills, pristine beaches, and desolate canyons. It is home to historic ranches, a campground in a lovely eucalyptus grove, and Painted Cave, one of the world's largest sea caves.
Visitors just might spot island foxes, which live on all of the larger islands; or a scrub jay, a bird that makes its home exclusively on Santa Cruz Island.
The scrub jay has plenty of company. About 140 species of land birds as well as 16 different species of seabirds have set up home on Santa Cruz. And more than 60,000 birds pass through the area each year. Annually, for the past five years, 12 new chicks of bald eagles, decimated in the 1970s by DDT, have returned to the island, thanks to a federal program.
The park service recently completed two other "restoration projects" to protect the native ecosystem: the eradication of rats, which were eating seabird nests on Anacapa, and the elimination of sheep on Santa Cruz, to preserve vegetation from destruction.
Since the 1970s, Steven Junak, who works for the Santa Barbara Botanical Museum, has been drawn to Santa Cruz Island. With more than 650 different species of plants and trees, nine of which grow nowhere else in the world, it's no wonder. Santa Cruz is a botanist's dream.
Mr. Junak has seen a "dramatic change" over the years. "Now that the sheep are gone," he says, plants such as horehound, mountain lilac, and Santa Cruz Island buckwheat are staging a comeback.
Visitors to Santa Cruz Island sometimes pitch a tent for a night at Scorpion Campground. There, Steven Strickland was stretched out in the sunshine, strumming his guitar and savoring his last days of quiet and solitude. Mr. Strickland, a 20-year veteran of the Air Force who had just joined the Peace Corps, was finishing up a cross-country tour of national parks and was about to embark on a teaching stint in Russia.
Lying in the grass beside him was a Russian-language book, which he was studying between riffs. "What I like about this place," said Strickland, "is that it will never be a high-impact destination. I came here with my dad eight years ago, and it's just the same [now]. It will always be very primitive and rough."
Just down the dirt path from Strickland's peaceful campsite was a large group of schoolchildren and teachers from Ventura. In addition, backpacking single-file through a trail in the tall grass was a gaggle of Cub Scouts.
Clearly, Santa Cruz Island and the other Channel Islands attract a different kind of visitor.
"For those people who are more interested in adding to their 'life list' of nature sightings," says Kent Bullard, maintenance supervisor for the park service, "this is indeed the place."
• For more information, visit the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary online at www.cinms.nos.noaa.gov.