Ocean First in The Channel Islands 2018

Ocean First   Jul 05, 2022

Ocean First has traveled to California’s Channel Islands several times before, always with great reviews and fond memories. Our trip this past August was significantly different on many levels and set an example for future hands-on adventures.

This particular adventure was dreamed up on an Ocean First expedition to Antarctica in February 2017. Renowned whale scientist Ari Friedlaender was on board our vessel to continue his work on humpback and minke whales in the frigid, nutritious waters of Antarctica. One evening over a glass or two of Malbec we conjured up the idea of a collaborative trip where we invite our divers to the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara and have Ari’s team of scientists on board. Our divers would have the opportunity to learn about Ari’s work while seeing whales in their natural habitat as well as get in some excellent diving in the kelp forests. Just like that, an awesome group trip was born and came to fruition August 21 – 25, 2018.

The trip sold out almost immediately due to the unique nature and opportunity to actively participate in whale science. We chartered the Conception liveaboard from Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara, and while the Conception is not our standard 130’ dive yacht, it was certainly comfortable enough with a spacious dive deck for our 24 divers. Yep, 24 divers! The sleeping accommodations were individual bunks in a main sleeping area which was something new for everyone! The majority of the group arrived in Santa Barbara the day before boarding and a handful of us went on a wine tasting tour in the Santa Ynez Valley, an appropriate tribute to the origin of the adventure.

The diving schedule was open and easy, with few time restrictions or limits. The average depth was about 40’ which was perfect for our two newly certified divers, Jack & Sydney! Water temperature ranged between 68 - 71F,  unusually warm for these waters. Little did we know, the warm temperatures would deter our whale watching efforts. Our very first dive in the kelp forest off Santa Cruz was awesome – a couple of playful harbor seals deftly maneuvered through the divers, surprising everyone! Throughout our dives, several divers had very close encounters with seals nibbling their fin tips! We also saw numerous sea hares, strange mollusks that crawled along the ocean floor. The ubiquitous Garibaldi (California’s state fish) were beacons of orange amongst the greenish-brown kelp. Several different species of fish cruised through the kelp forest which was easy for them, not so easy for divers with scuba gear. It was a real exercise in buoyancy control to navigate through the strands of beautiful kelp without getting stuck, but if you found yourself tangled up, your dive buddy was there to set you free.

We moved onto Anacapa after a couple of days in Santa Cruz. These islands are rugged, extraordinary, and an important habitat for seagulls, terns, brown pelicans, and the occasional bald eagle. Our time in Anacapa was amazing with thick kelp beds and frequent sightings of big sheepshead wrasse, whose population had been decreasing in the past few years. It was reassuring to see so many of these toothy fish!

We did not encounter any whales, unfortunately, regardless of how much effort we put into scouring the Santa Barbara channel. Ari brought his RHIB (rigid-hull inflatable boat) alongside the Conception for speedy access to surfacing whales but sadly there were no whale sightings in the area. We did encounter several large schools of common dolphin as well as a pod of about 15 Risso’s dolphin. Fun fact: the Risso’s dolphin often appears white due to their numerous scars from social interactions. We also came across a group of about six sea lions frolicking around in the open water. It was definitely disappointing to not see any whales, but the group took it in stride knowing that we cannot predict the behavior of wild animals. Ari and his wife, Caroline (a pinniped scientist) entertained and educated the group every night with fascinating presentations on their research, whale behavior and morphology, and the intriguing world of sea lions, seals, and elephant seals. This was a real treat and something the group looked forward to each day.

One of the best parts of the whole trip was that the participants helped raise $7,000 for the California Ocean Alliance, the conservation group Ari and Caroline work with. These funds are more than enough to cover one of the tags Ari places on humpback and minke whales to record their diving, feeding, mating, and migration behavior. We were thrilled to make such a substantial contribution and help support their important work. Collaborative, citizen science opportunities like this trip are what Ocean First strives towards. We promise to offer more unique learning experiences like this where our divers and snorkelers can enjoy a wonderful holiday while gaining valuable knowledge and contributing towards important research at the same time.

Until the next adventure...