San Miguel Island is the sixth largest of the eight Channel Islands, just 14 square miles in area. It is also the westernmost. Because of the way the mainland juts out into the Pacific Ocean, however, it isn’t the farthest from the coast, San Nicolas Island is. Miguel is 26 miles south of Point Conception and 55 miles west of Ventura. From Santa Barbara, the island is about a four-hour dive boat run; from Ventura, about five hours.
San Miguel is one of the five islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara Islands are the others) that form the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary. Without question, it has some of the harshest dive conditions found off the Southern California coast. When it isn’t shrouded in fog it’s usually windy, thus the waters can be rough. Because of its far west position, currents and upwellings deliver cold, nutrient rich water. How cold? On more than one Memorial Day weekend it was 44° F.
So why brave the elements to dive here? The richness of the marine life is the draw. Both photographers and game hunters will find a treasure trove. Since the waters are both a marine sanctuary and a national park, only marine life covered by California Fish and Game regulations may be taken. (Don’t bring up shells or anything man-made.)
Macro photographers will especially love this island for its abundance of nudibranchs and fringehead blennies. You have to develop an eye to see the latter, their heads sport fringe that looks very much like the algae patches they live in.
The purple ringed topshell is also commonly seen here. Shiny gold with purple rings, it is one of the most beautiful shells found off our coast (though not valuable because it’s not rare).
My favorite places to dive here include Point Bennett, the westernmost point of the island. This wind swept stretch of beach hosts six different species of pinnipeds, including Elephant Seals. An estimated 50,000 of the latter (more than half the world’s population) haul out on the island during some part of the year. There is also a sizable population of California sea lions and, like those at Santa Barbara Island, they seem to enjoy playing with divers.
The shallow rocky shoreline of Cuyler Harbor is unbelievably great for nudibranchs—they seem to litter the bottom. Be sure to check out small clumps of algae—sometimes these are decorator crabs in disguise. You can shoot a whole roll of film without going below 40 feet.
Wyckoff Ledge, 1.4 miles off Crook Point, is another great site. it is only divable when the winds and the seas are relatively calm. The ledges and gullies here are so full of life both game hunters and macro photographers will be ecstatic. Purple ringed topshells are abundant, as are tiny, colorful bottom dwelling kelpfish and greenlings. Nudibranchs are varied and numerous. Stay shallow or go deep.
Other excellent macro sites include Simonton Cove, Tyler Bight and Castle
Few people set foot on any Channel Islands except Catalina but the other seven are very special, too—totally undeveloped and wild. Truth Aquatics and Island Packers run land trips to San Miguel Island. Do yourself a favor and sign up for one of these. I like hiking in the spring and early summer because that’s when the wildflowers bloom. Starting on a beautiful beach in Cuyler Harbor, you hike up a steep, mile-long path to the Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo monument (he is said to have cut his leg on Prince Island and died of the resulting infection). A trail takes you past what remains of Rancho Rambouillet, home to Herbert Lester and his family from 1930 to 1942. Lester was the self-professed “King of San Miguel.”
You’ll go past the International Airport (a dirt airstrip with a windsock) on your way to the Caliche Forest and, as you walk, you might see whales cavorting offshore. Those found in the waters off Miguel include gray, fin, blue and minke.
Because getting there is weather dependent and the seas are often rough, San Miguel is less visited than many of the other Channel Islands. But as those who have explored it on land and sea will attest, it’s well worth the trip.