Santa Rosa: The Second Largest Channel Island

I’ve spent many a night on a dive boat anchored in Johnson’s Lee, one of Santa Rosa Island’s two somewhat sheltered anchorages. There is usually a nice but not spectacular sunset, then darkness. For a near-LAX-resident such as myself the nights seem particularly black; the only lights come from the stars above and any small boats anchored nearby. The silence is broken only by the ever-present wind and the sound of the boat’s generator.

Twenty-six and a half miles off the California coast, Santa Rosa Island is west of Santa Cruz Island and east of San Miguel Island. It is the second largest of the Channel Islands (15 miles long, 10 miles wide) and one of the least visited.

From 1902 until late 1986, Santa Rosa was owned by Vail and Vickers. The company used the island as a cattle ranch and ran a hunting operation as well, stocking deer and elk.

The U.S. Government bought Santa Rosa from Vail and Vickers for just less than $30 million. Studies determined the cattle were detrimental to the island’s environment and they were removed in 1998; the deer and elk are to be phased out, too.

If you take an Island Packers or Truth Aquatics land trip to Santa Rosa, you’ll go ashore at Becher’s Bay, using the pier built by Vail and Vickers. The ranger station is near the historic Vail and Vickers ranch buildings.

I’ve taken two land trips, one via boat, the other via small plane. Landing on and taking off from the island’s dirt airstrip in the wind was quite an experience. Both groups visited several spots around the island, including a couple of Native American middens and a grove of Torrey pines just east of Becher’s Bay. (These trees don’t grow on any other Channel Island.) In the spring, when the wildflowers bloom and the rolling hills are green, the island is beautiful.

Underwater visibility is often limited off Santa Rosa, so macro photography is the best bet and you won’t lack for subjects. At Outside Pinnacles, I shot Corynactis anemones and Hermissenda crassicornis nudibranchs. At other sites, I’ve photographed sea cucumbers, clam siphons, fringehead blennies, chestnut cowries, and feather duster worms.

Although the water at Little Wilson Rock was “surgy and green,” I noted in my log, “the marine life is beautiful.”

Talcott Shoal, north of the island’s western most point, has long been know as a prime lobster hunting area.

A rocky outcropping with two pinnacles rising five and ten feet above the water’s surface, Bee Rock, which I have never dived, gets rave reviews from those who have for its colorful and abundant macro life.

Santa Rosa Island hosts several shipwrecks, including the Aggi, Golden Horn, Dora Bluhm, Chickasaw and Crown of England. All of them are in 50 feet of water or less and parts of at least one, the Chickasaw, can be seen on shore.
Little remains of any of them and they can only be visited when the wind dies down and the seas are calm. And remember, this is a National Park and a National Marine Sanctuary, so the taking of artifacts (or anything not on Fish and Game regulations) is forbidden.

Santa Rosa diving is not for the thermal challenged; the words most often noted in my logbooks after dives here are “cold, very cold!” But the cold, nutrient rich waters are the reason marine life thrives here and why the diving is extraordinary.

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