The Largest Channel Island Has a Colorful History and a Variety of Diving Adventures Looking east from Pelican Bay

The history of California’s Channel Islands is fun. It’s chock full of interesting characters; men who made a living salvaging shipwrecks; a Nicoleno Indian woman who spent 18 years on San Nicolas Island with only wild dogs for company; and a man who proclaimed himself The King of San Miguel Island, to name a few.

Among the colorful inhabitants of Santa Cruz Island was Margaret Holden Eaton, a woman way ahead of her time. She lived on the island with her husband, Ira, and child, Vera, in the early 1900s. Since her husband (a fisherman) was at sea a great deal of the time, she became quite self sufficient. Her amazing life, including the years she and Ira ran a resort at Pelican Bay where several movies were filmed, is recounted in Diary of a Sea Captain’s Wife.

Having visited and hiked all but two of the Channel Islands, I have total admiration for anyone who has lived on them. They are not tropical paradises. It has snowed on Santa Cruz on occasion and the temperature in the central valley can range from 100 degrees in the summer to 20 degrees in the winter. The topography is rugged. The wind is a nearly constant companion and the seas are rough more often than not. Margaret Eaton tells of a terrible journey in the hold of ship during which she and her daughter used bags of abalone and “crawfish,” (spiny lobsters) as pillows.
Purple hydrocoral at Gull Island.
Santa Cruz is the largest Channel Island, 22 miles long and two to six miles wide. The east end is only 19 miles off the California coast. Santa Cruz has the highest elevation of the eight islands, its Picacho Diablo rises 2,434 feet.

Santa Cruz is part of the Channel Islands National Park and Marine Sanctuary, but only 24 percent of the land, the east end, is owned by the park service. The rest belongs to the Nature Conservancy.
Santa Cruz offers many, many excellent dive sites. I visited here frequently when I first got certified because the little Sea Bee offered trips for only $19.

One of my favorite dive sites is Gull Island, which has healthy purple hydrocoral formations in less than 30 feet of water. Sandy areas between Gull and Cruz have been know to produce nice sized halibut.

Little Scorpion features the wreck of the Peacock in 60 to 70 feet of water. Shallow Forney’s Cove has lots of kelp and macro life, including fringehead blennies and uncommon nudibranchs. I saw my first and only school of tubesnouts here on one memorable dive but was unable to entice any of them into my macro framer.

In Chinese Harbor I have photographed hermit crabs and several different gastropods. At Ruby Rock I photographed nudibranchs and fringeheads. “Cueva Valdez,” I noted in my logbook, “is almost as beautiful as Wilson Rock.” There, I photographed nudibranchs and rock scallops. At Yellow Banks I’ve hunted lobster.

Although I haven’t dived it, I’ve been inside Painted Cave several times. Captains of Truth Aquatics boats like to amaze and delight passengers by motoring into the huge cave, accompanied by the continuous barking of the sea lions that haul out there.

Books on the Channel Islands are available in marine aquariums, The Channels Islands National Park Headquarters and the Casino Museum on Catalina. A little knowledge of their colorful history makes diving these islands even more enjoyable.

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