Catalina Island not so wild trip - September 2011

I was considering not including this in my blog at all - since it wasn't exactly a wildlife adventure - but I thought it could be one of those posts that informs people what NOT to do if they are in search of economical wilderness exploration!

I'd been wanting to visit Santa Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California since moving here. I had visions in my head of taking a boat over to this wild place where Buffalo/Bison roam free and there are species/subspecies (of plants, birds, mammals) that exist only on the island - for example, the Santa Catalina Island Fox.

I'd recently finished reading a T.C. Boyle novel (When the Killing's Done) which takes place on the Channel Islands - although not Santa Catalina - and focuses on how introduced species can devastate an island population because they are usually so isolated and have only a small set of predators (if any). Here's some info from wikipedia about the Santa Catalina Island Fox:

"Because the island fox is isolated, it has no immunity to parasites and diseases brought in from the mainland and are especially vulnerable to those the domestic dog may carry. A canine distemper outbreak in 1998 killed approximately 90% of Santa Catalina Island's fox population."

Tim Coonan/NPS (
So, a LONG time back, I'd gotten some Groupon's that made our boat ride out there $45 instead of $90 from the Marina del Rey Flyer. We'd been waiting so long to find a weekend where we could stay overnight and it was beginning to get colder so we decided to just make a day trip out of it.

Pros of taking off from Marina del Rey as opposed to many others which leave from Newport Beach or Long Beach: more time on the water (about 1.5 hours) so more potential of seeing dolphins, whales, etc., shorter drive. Cons: more time on the water so more time for sea sickness(!), a single arrival and departure time allowing little flexibility and possibly also less time on the island.

Here's Avalon:

View Larger Map

The longer boat ride paid off. Halfway there we spotted a whale and it turned out to be a Blue Whale! The largest known mammal to have ever existed! We saw 5 or 6 huge breaths (blow) and then the back come out of the water followed by the HUGE tail (fluke)! Really an amazing sight. Passed a couple of pods of dolphins as well.

No whales or dolphins in this photo - wasn't quick enough
Other than the whale spotting, I was a bit underwhelmed by the options for hiking, tide pooling, etc. that our 5 hour stay in Avalon afforded. Granted, it was only 5 hours and we weren't in a position to spend much money since we'd already spent a chunk to get there so we couldn't do any of the eco jeep tours to the interior of the island or ziplining or free diving.

When we arrived at 11am we ate and then walked up to the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens. It's a 1.5 mile walk up a paved/dirt road passing a gold course and ball park. Since it's in a canyon, the hills around are beautiful. We saw woodpeckers and hummingbirds and even some deer. However, our enjoyment was considerable lessened by the constant golf carts zipping by, disrupting the quiet and leaving a trail of gas fumes in their wake. It felt more developed even than many parts of Malibu. The Gardens were nice but very cultivated (as was to be expected).

View from the base of the monument
We had stopped at the Catalina Island Conservancy office near the harbor when we arrived and the staff person directed us to a short (1.5 hour?) hike that we could take on the way back down to Avalon, but it was already after 1pm and I wanted to see if there was any good tide pooling - thinking I might see some things I don't see on the mainland - so we skipped it. It was also a very overcast day anyway and we weren't sure we'd get the reward of a nice view from the top.

We headed back to the harbor and then over to Descanso Beach where the staff person at the Conservancy office said we might find some tide pools - although he also mentioned they don't have many in Avalon.

The low tide was around 2:30pm and we made it there just shortly after. I took off to explore this rocky area bordering on Hamilton Cove but found little besides some crabs, limpets and barnacles.  Still, it was nice to be out of sight of all the tourists and the music streaming from the Descanso Beach club.

Striped Shore Crab
Hey! Good idea. :)

At that point, it was time to walk back over to the harbor, get something to eat and leave.

It was a perfectly nice day, but a bit cheesy for my tastes. I would have enjoyed a day in Malibu just as much. Of course, no Blue Whale sightings from Malibu!

If I go back I'll try to use another ferry service that leaves earlier in the day and goes directly to Two Harbors (the other small town on the island which I hear is less developed) or get my act together to go kayaking or even camp overnight. Lesson learned (and transmitted to my readers :)