Channel Islands National Park, California

Nothing says “I love you” like a whale watching trip on Valentine’s Day!  

Hank surprised me with two tickets to take a boat out of Ventura Harbor with Island Packers, the official vendor of Channel Islands National Park in Southern California. Their boats take you to the Channel Islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara islands) and they also do wildlife excursions where you remain on the boat.

We’ve been whale watching from Hawaii to Quebec, and this is the best deal going–$34 each for a four-hour tour. The boat has inside and outside seating, decent restrooms, a snack bar and plenty of rail space from which to view the critters.

The day before our trip they had spotted 2 gray whales, 4 humpback whales and 5 orcas (very unusual), plus a couple thousand common dolphins and a few bottlenose dolphins. We were hopeful that our tour would be just as fruitful…but alas, wildlife do not perform on cue.

Leaving the harbor, we immediately spotted a whale spout and sure enough, it was a gray whale, possibly an adolescent who was having trouble getting past the harbor area. At this time of year (February), our nature guide told us, gray whales can be headed in both directions. Some slowpokes might still be making their way down from Alaska, heading to the warm waters of Baja California to give birth or mate. And some moms might already be heading north with their infant calves in tow.

Yes, that's a gray whale--but he didn't want to come all the way out for us!

While we didn’t get a great view of this gray whale, we did enjoy viewing the sea birds who were enjoying this sunny day. A couple of female sea lions were taking a break on a large buoy just outside the harbor.

Pelicans and cormorants greet those entering and exiting Ventura Harbor
Female sea lions taking a break

This particular tour did not get super close to the Channel Islands, though we have been in the vicinity of both Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands on previous trips. We’ve also dived in these waters—cold but wonderfully rich with kelp forests and all the critters who hang out in those forests.  Here are some photos and a video from our 2013 scuba diving trip to Anacapa Island.

A curious juvenile California sea lion investigates the GoPro camera (Cindy in the background)
Two iconic California fish--garibaldi and California sheephead
A view of Anacapa Island from under the water
A bat ray in a healthy kelp forest

If the video is not visible in your email or does not link properly, click here.  Anacapa Video

Back to present day…Dolphins were the highlight of our Valentine’s Day excursion—we saw at least 2,000 common dolphins, in all their poses. They swam alongside our boat, jumped out of the water, and gave us a terrific show.

There was even one sea lion who was pretending to be a dolphin. I’d never seen a sea lion jump out of the water just like the dolphins around her.

Sea lion on the right preparing to dive out of the water just like the dolphins!
Santa Cruz Island in the background

The boat headed up the coast as far north as Carpinteria and then turned back south toward Ventura Harbor. We were hoping to see some whales along the coast where the water suddenly gets much deeper, but the humpbacks and orcas had all gone into hiding today.

Fortunately, before our tour was over, we got one more sighting of a gray whale. We watched its tail come up and over and then disappear under the water. Though we didn’t see a lot of whales, it was still a beautiful day on the water.

The gray whale's back and...
The whale's tail...

After disembarking, we headed over to the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center, where they often have a web cam focused on a bald eagle’s nest on Santa Cruz Island. They have a nice little garden walking path that identifies a number of plant species native to this area.

And one little lizard came and said hello while we walked the path. It was a lovely Valentine’s Day with Hank and the critters!

If you’re in Southern California from December to April (or if you live here), definitely consider a whale watching trip with Island Packers and a stop at the Channel Islands Visitor Center in Ventura Harbor.

3 thoughts on “Channel Islands National Park, California”

  1. Cindy and Hank,
    You both enjoyed THE perfect Valentines Day adventure-the photos and narrative were awesome!

    As always,thanks so much for sharing with us !

    Marleen and Q

    • Well, there was one guy on the boat trying to have fun with his significant other. Problem was…he was carrying around a barf bag almost the entire trip (4 hrs.) and he was looking rather white/green while she was patting him on the back. I’ve been there. Best to take some Bonine because the swell can make a bad day out of a good one. So, stay an extra day next time, Kent! It’s about 1.5 hours to the boat from our house.


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