Located about twenty miles off the California coast, Santa Catalina Island offers visitors one of the best preserved marine environments in the world. The kelp forests that surround the rocky coast support a vast community of marine life, including local fish, seasonal pelagic predators, lobster, and marine mammals.
The island itself is twenty-one miles long, eight miles at its widest, with a fifty-four mile coastline. The steep hills are covered with brown grass and some scrubby trees. There is an extensive trail network for the hiker, and more than a few dirt roads for the cyclist. There are two small communities, Avalon and Two Harbors, where the intrepid backcountry adventurer can resupply, find a place to stay, eat out, or party hearty at a bar.
It is the marine environment, however, that makes Catalina Island an irresistible destination. I go there at every opportunity.
You might ask, “Isn’t that a little far away for a quick vacation?” Well, the coast is no farther away from Tucson than is The Canyon, and it is closer than Utah or the Arizona Strip.
The sea has a special appeal, as does the desert. In fact, they are both all about water, though in different ways. You might say that they are two sides of the same coin.
Anyway, there are a number of ways to get to Catalina Island form the coast. Ferries leave from Long Beach, San Pedro, and Dana Point. In two to three hours you can be in either Avalon or Two Harbors. If that is not fast enough, you can take an airplane or helicopter and be there in fifteen minutes.
Since I love to sail, I use a sailboat to get there. A good sized sailboat is like a floating RV. It not only gets you from the coast to any part of the island, but it is also your place to stay once there!
At one point on our last trip, we anchored in Rippers Cove – a few miles down the coast from Isthmus Cove at Two Harbors. When we had everything squared away, I donned my wetsuit, mask, snorkel, fins and weights, grabbed my speargun, and slipped into the water.
We were in eighteen feet of water and I could see the bottom. In fact, I saw a good sized bat ray resting on the sand. I dived for a closer look and it slowly flew away. I made my way over toward the the rocky cliffs where I found a wall of kelp. I slowly worked along the kelp keeping an eye both on the kelp forest and the open water.
It was mid-September and I was hoping for some late season yellowtail, which I was hoping to find doing what I was doing – hunting the edge of the kelp forest. I figured it more likely that I might find a good sized calico sea bass in the forest, so I would occasionally dive and poke around in the stalks. Mostly I slowly kicked my way along the surface, breathing through the snorkel, feeling like I could go on forever.
While the game species were disappointing (there were plenty of calicos, but none big enough to shoot), there were plenty of other fish to see – opaleye, halfmoon, kelp clingfish, leopard shark, bat rays, halibut, and the ubiquitous bright orange girabaldi, to name a few.
I noticed the visibility had declined. I could no longer see the bottom form the surface. I looked to my left, to the open water, and saw a school of fish swimming in the opposite direction. Their tails were bright yellow, far brighter than they appear when out of the water. These were the yellowtail I sought. I was mesmerized, as most novice hunters are when the game comes in to view. The now somewhat cloudy water gave them a ghostlike appearance. They moved in unison. I thought them small based on the jerkiness of their swimming, but were they? In the open water, there was no frame of reference. They could have been small and close, or large and further away. I tried to close them, but they managed to keep their distance, eventually fading away. Ham sandwiches for dinner.
That night the moon and the distant glow from the mainland lent a soft dim light to the boat and the shore. There was a hint of phosphorescence when I leaned over the side and stirred the water with my hand. The air was almost still, and I could almost hear the small waves lapping the beach. There was a bare hint of swell which caused the boat to rock gently.
The next day we sailed until the wind died, then motored the rest of the way to Avalon. The community of a few thousand was more charming than I expected, it had an almost Mediterranean flavor – and of course, food and liquor. In back of the casino is a fenced-in, I should say “netted-in”, marine park. I spent an hour or so diving there without the burden of the speargun. They actually built steps so you can walk down into the water.
We left Avalon and set a course for Long Beach. There was absolutely no wind, and the sea was like glass, so we motored. What would otherwise have been a long slog was saved by a large pod of dolphins who crossed our path. When we met, we turned to their course and they swam and played by our bow and on either side of the boat. With the water like glass, we were treated to a close view of them swimming underwater as well as breaching the surface. What a treat!
I never mind the drive back to Tucson. The feelings of joy and fulfillment last well beyond it.