Winter Adventures with Island Packers
By Nicole Leonetti
You can binge-watch all the high-definition 4K nature documentaries you want, but nothing comes close to seeing whales in the wild. No television can give you a true appreciation for the majesty of a breaching humpback, or the sheer mass of a 90,000-pound gray whale. No photo or YouTube clip can put you on the bow of a boat as hundreds of dolphins frolic in the waves under your feet.
Lucky for you, these bucket list experiences can be crossed off right here on the Central Coast with Island Packers. This family-owned company has been leading expeditions off the Ventura County coast for decades, allowing locals and visitors alike a chance to see some of the greatest shows on Earth. Bill M. Connally fell in love with this area long before it became the Channel Islands National Park and founded Island Packers in 1968 with the goal of sharing its natural beauty and diversity. If you’re ready for a true adventure, join their experienced crews for whale watching, kayaking, hiking excursions, camping trips, and more. The official boat concessionaire of the Channel Islands National Park, the company offers trips out of both Ventura and Oxnard harbors.
Visit in the summer for calmer seas and warmer weather, or in the springtime to see the native plants in full bloom on the Channel Islands. But if it’s whales you’re after, there’s no better time than winter. During the chilly months, thousands of gray whales migrate from their Arctic feeding grounds to the warmer waters of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, traveling just off the Central Coast on this epic 10,000-mile migration. You’ll see their distinctive double-spouts from a good ways off, but it’s not at all uncommon to see them much closer up. You might also spot humpbacks, minke and fin whales, and occasionally an orca. You’ll almost certainly see dolphins — sometimes by the thousands — along with seals, sea lions, and a variety of sea birds.
Hop on an Island Packers whale watching boat now through mid-April and spend 3-plus hours in the Santa Barbara Channel with experienced captains who will give you the best chance of seeing the whales in action. Along the way, the crews will share their deep knowledge about the history and ecology of the Channel Islands National Park and its five islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara.
These islands and their surrounding waters are closely protected and are so biologically diverse, they’ve been nicknamed the Galapagos of North America. The area is also very important to local Native American tribes, with archeological Chumash sites on some islands dating back as far back as 13,000 years.
Outside of winter whale-watching time, Island Packers offers summer whale watching trips when blue whales and humpbacks are in the area. There are several other ways to experience this national park, as well. The Anacapa Wildlife Cruises can scratch your itch for exploration all year round.
The islands closest to the mainland, Anacapa and Santa Cruz, are only about an hour away by boat, and provide ample daytime opportunities for visitors to disembark and spend time hiking, bird watching, and simply taking in the beauty of the native plants and scenery. Volunteer naturalists provide organized group hikes to maximize your time on the island.
Kayaking is a favorite activity at the Channel Islands, as well. You can bring your own kayak on the Island Packers boats or rent one through Channel Islands Kayaking Center (cikayak.com). Guided kayaking tours can also be booked through Channel Islands Adventure Company (islandkayaking.com), where you can kayak through the beautiful sea caves on the islands. Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island is the most popular destination for kayaking, while Prisoners Harbor provides a more intimate experience.
Interested in an extended adventure? Island Packers provides transportation for campers to all but Santa Barbara Island. The most popular island to camp on is the largest, Santa Cruz, with shade trees and potable water in Scorpion Canyon Campground. San Miguel Island is the most remote (and rugged) but can provide spectacular views of seal and sea lion breeding grounds for adventurers willing to make the 16-mile round-trip trek with a park ranger. For all islands, overnight campers need to acquire a camping permit in advance through recreation.gov, in addition to purchasing a boat ticket from Island Packers. Be sure to carefully review the regulations and come well-prepared as all sites are primitive; no campfires are allowed, and campers must pack all trash out when they leave. I am not a camper by any stretch of the imagination — however, I have heard the islands are a phenomenal place for stargazing, so if anyone else is as obsessed with seeing the Milky Way as I am, then camping on the Channel Islands sounds like a worthwhile adventure!
Island Packers co-owner Cherryl Connally shared that one of her favorite parts of all the cruises is the return trip, when there are often pods of dolphins following the boat. She loves watching guests have meaningful life experiences every day.
No matter what time of year you visit, Island Packers has you covered with truly unique experiences of fun, adventure, and education.
For more information and to book a tour, visit islandpackers.com.