Earning three college units in a week while exploring a remote island is the ultimate educational experience. Santa Barbara Island is a serene environment for studying, observing and learning free from human disturbance.
The lack of easy access, coupled with long and often rough boat ride, tend to make visitors more receptive to the small wonders of the history, plants, and animals discovered on the island.
This volcanic island provides a sense of isolation that imprints each experience with a new sense of worth. The smallest of the eight Channel Islands off of Southern California, it is located between Point Conception and the Mexican border, about 40 miles from Los Angeles and 25 miles west of Santa Catalina Island.
An early explorer named Sebastian Vizcaino named the island when he arrived on Saint Barbara's Day, Dec. 4, 1602, and early navigation charts have the island marked as “Santa Barbara Rock.”
On March 5, 1980, President Carter created Southern California's first national park, protecting the entire cluster of islands off the Ventura and Santa Barbara coasts. Carole Spears, chief of Interpretation for the Channel Island Nation Park Service said that the Channel Island Nation Park Service said that the Channel Islands make up a National Park and are owned by students and all Americans. Students have the opportunity to explore the island through the eyes of scientists by assisting in research.
“Students go for all kinds of reasons, whether it is for vacation or units,” said Kathy James, the class instructor. “No matter why they go, they come back with a better understanding for resource management, wildlife preservation and a bunch of new friends.”
Cal State Long Beach offers the class, Recreation in the Ocean Environment. Cal State Fullerton students can register through the extension department at CSULB. The trip to Santa Barbara Island launches the first week of June every year.
On the island, students have the ability to witness breeding of species and the birth of sea lions. Last summer, the class noticed yellow flowers covering cliff trails where water trickled down from the rains on the north end of the island. El Nino's destruction ripped off the railing and the ladder to the landing dock, forcing the class to use the alternative route of beaching a rubber dinghy to enter the rocky shore when the swell rolled in.
This little island is roughly one and a half miles by one mile, or 635 acres, which makes hiking the entire island in less than a day possible. The weather is ideal for hiking because it never gets extremely hot or cold.
One pitch-black night, hiking back from Arch Point after monitoring birds, the batteries died on my flashlight. A barn owl silently swooped down and screeched in my ear, the darkness made it hard to find the trail. Before I knew it, there was no trail, only the drop off from the cliffs in front of me. Somehow I managed to find camp.
During the day I found fragments of abalone shells along some trails, which were used to make fishhooks. These and other archaeological evidence indicates Indians visited the island but never permanently settled due to the lack of fresh water.
Hiking up the north peak or east side, one can hear the sounds of waves crashing onto the rocky shore and sea lions and elephant seals hauled out on the rocky beaches below. Witnessing the birth of a sea lion and swimming with one the same day is not uncommon during the breeding season. Sea lions are just as curious to see us as we are to see them. In fact, one came right up to my mask while barking under water. The awesome diving atmosphere and water clarity allowed me to see a school of bat rays camouflaged at the sea floor.
Bird watching on the island is extraordinary. The activity is a section of the park's class curriculum.
This rock-like island only supports ten species of seabirds, comprising about 3,000 nesting pairs. The island shelters a combination of marine birds found nowhere else on earth. I assisted a biologist as he monitored the number offspring successfully raised each year and drew out a report on the reproductive success of the birds. I learned that measuring the reproductive success of birds is directly correlated with the abundance of their food supply and is an indication of the ecosystem's stability. Therefore, Santa Barbara Island is important to breeding seabirds because of the abundant food supply in the offshore waters and the kelp beds around the island.
Some incidents that directly affect the food supply are weather changes such as El Nino and man-related disturbances like oil spills and construction. For example, oil spills affect birds that dive underneath the surface of the water to obtain food, as they are vulnerable to oil lying on the surface of the water.
I remember abruptly waking up to the ranger frantically asking where my camera was and trying to talk with the park service on his radio and the coast guards on the cell phone. There was a ship dumping oil outside the harbor. I jumped off the top bunk and grabbed the video camera to document the event. The ship sailed away in a matter of ten minutes, with a trail from the oil following it for about a mile. The main concern now were the animals in the area. The ranger immediately left in a boat to search for any threatened animals in danger from the oil.
The birds and critters on the island are protected. There is a hefty fine for harming the brown pelican because the population declined throughout Southern California due to contamination by the pesticide DDT. The initiation of the Endangered Species Act and the prohibition of DDT created a slow revival of the species of brown pelicans.
It is beautiful observing these rare birds soaring across the tranquil ocean. During the summer months, I watched the pelican divers feed in the kelp beds close to the island, plunging bill-first after their prey.
There are various areas of study to embrace on the island: astronomy, biology, botany, entomology, geology, ornithology, zoology or recreation and leisure studies. The experience at this ecological laboratory gives people an opportunity to grow in ways no one can adequately measure.
For more information contact Kathy James, CSULB Recreation and Leisure Department, at (562) 985-8077 or Channel Island National Park for camping permits at (805) 658-5700.