The richly biodiverse Channel Islands National Park is a mere 70 miles off the coast of California—but venture there and you’ll find it feels like a world away. The islands’ isolation has kept them relatively undeveloped and they’re teeming with rare beauty and pristine wildness accessible only by ship. You’ll encounter amazing sea caves and rock formations, fascinating endemic plants and animals, seductive sunsets and dazzling star-lit nights, and miles of excellent hiking trails. Recently, our Staff Photographer/Art Director David Vargas joined our Wild California Escape aboard the National Geographic Venture and spent five days capturing the essence of this spirit-lifting place. Here are a few of his favorite shots and some thoughts on the voyage. —As told to Lauren A. Greene
Anacapa Island is actually made up of three islets, East, Middle, and West Anacapa, and the only way to get from one to another is by boat. We spent time on East Anacapa where we explored the amazing geology. Waves have eroded the island over time which created towering sea cliffs, massive sea caves, a famous rock arch and other interesting formations like these. The weather was a bit foggy and it was drizzling on and off but the sun peeked through the clouds just as I took this shot. It made observing these spectacular rock formations even more dramatic.
There are only two naturally occurring groves of Torrey pine trees in the world, one at Torrey Pines State Reserve in La Jolla, and this one on Santa Rosa Island. We hiked for about an hour to get there and were definitely rewarded for our efforts. It felt like being in an enchanted forest, almost like something you would see in a dream. This guest stopped to rest and take in all the stunning scenery. I used a wide-angle lens to capture the most graphic elements of those unique windswept branches. The red carpet of pine needles really added to the image as well.
While hiking ashore be sure to keep your eyes open. There are lots of interesting small details all around. I really liked the contrast of this bright yellow delicate Channel Islands poppy against the textured, more rugged Torrey pinecone. This shot is also special since the Channel Islands is the only place in the world you can photograph these two items together.
The color of the water was so unique. It was almost emerald green in some places. The darker green kelp from this huge kelp forest draped on the surface of the water and made for a visually appealing image. These guests got a close-up look at the kelp as they were being shuttled back to the ship after an active morning of hikes on Santa Rosa Island. We saw kelp like this all over the place. In fact, one third of southern California’s kelp forests are found within Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.
It’s really invigorating waking up each day anchored in a new island and surrounded by such remote and pure wilderness. Many guests aboard were inspired to rise early and take advantage of morning yoga classes and the vibrant sunlight.
Santa Cruz is the largest of all the Channel islands and it contains a diverse array of natural elements—rugged mountain ranges, rolling hills, deep canyons, expansive beaches. We experienced a more adventurous hike here, about 7 or 8 miles, that took us into some wild areas where we came across endemic animals. Birders in the group were excited to spot island scrub-jays. Santa Cruz is the only island in the world where you can check this bird off your list. We were also lucky to see a Channel Island fox. It seemed completely unphased by humans and we were able to observe him quietly for a while.
As we climbed higher on that hike we were treated to almost 360-degree views of Santa Cruz. I was really amazed by all the different kinds of interesting plant life and how it changed as we moved throughout the island—there are marshes and grassland and forests and sage brush. I wanted this image to really showcase that diverse mosaic of native flora.
Like on any Lindblad expedition, our staff was very knowledgeable and passionate about the places we were exploring. They always went above and beyond to make sure guests were inspired, surprised, and just as captivated by these islands as our expedition team was. National Geographic Photographer Rich Reid led this small group on a hike in Santa Cruz and was eager to share tips and tricks on how to best shoot the dramatic landscape and the beautiful soft light.
Our evening in Little Harbor, Catalina Island was one of my favorites. Everyone was hanging out on the beach in this quiet cove. Some guests went for a hike, some went for a paddle or kayak, and some just relaxed with drinks—the hotel staff delivered them from the ship to shore—and good conversation. The water was incredibly calm and the sunset was even better. I watched it unfold before me as the water and sky turned from blue to gold. Magic hour!
After being surrounded by remote wildness for several days we eased back into civilization in the town of Avalon on Catalina. There was an opportunity to do some shopping, to head to the local ice cream shop, or to hike up to this beautiful viewpoint with Rich Reid and work on photography skills. There were quite a few colorful homes, which popped against the blue sky, and made a great photo op. And that big white building in the center by the water is the historic Avalon Theater, one of the very first movie houses built for talking movies.
Discover the wilder side of California and rejuvenate your mind, body and soul on our 5-day Wild California Escape: Channel Islands National Park. Departing April, October, November & December 2020 and April 2021.