On January 5th, 2022: Santa Cruz Island. Prisoner’s Harbor. Notes.
We left at 9AM from Ventura, packed onto a “public transportation” boat, which was not full. I sat up top in the open-air area. The man next to me spoke to a woman beside him, and I listened (because it was public transportation) as we slowly left the harbor. The man had that masculine, matter-of-fact voice, which, in my estimation, has that hint of nervousness behind it. Once a construction worker, now a retired truck driver, this man finally allowed himself to feel his body. And with that feeling came a recognition of his back problems, which he now was trying to fix (“it’s hard to cure something like that at this age, especially when we’re all going to die so soon,” he said). If he had only allowed himself to feel earlier, as a matter of fact, then he wouldn’t be in this situation. The woman next to him added, “stress will kill you if you let it, so you’ll die early.” They both spoke of America’s capitalist problem (“but that’s just how it is here”) and how people stress out at work just to keep themselves busy. But, the guy added, in spite of the woman’s skeptical expression, which was an almost speechlessness at what he was about to say: “sometimes I like stress. I need it. It gets my blood flowing to places that I forget about. And I like feeling angry about certain things. It’s fun.”
“Cathartic, I guess,” the woman replied, “The catharsis of it is what you like.” Their conversation drifted off as the captain grabbed a microphone and introduced the crew and announced the rules. “Do not karate-kick the toilet,” he said, and we sped off out of the harbor into the choppy sea. “It’ll be rough today,” one of the workers had told me when I checked in, but the boat smoothly rose and fell with each wave. I grabbed my camera and stood on the platform in front of the bridge, with two other photographers. We watched for whales, while sea lions and dolphins jumped around the boat. One hour to Santa Cruz Island, in the middle of a wavy blue expanse that ended on the island, and we were headed straight towards it. Navigating with a purpose, feeling it all—the wind throwing my hair back lightly as the boat rose heavily and fell weightlessly with each wave, crashing down, slicing the seam of the water on both sides of the boat. Making our way.
You’d get seasick if you weren’t paying attention. It became easier to manage if you had fun with it—if you focused on the ride, on each up-and-down movement, if you participated in each subtle direction of the journey and embraced it. That is, if you recognized that we weren’t just headed towards Santa Cruz Island—we were headed up this wave, then down, then, with strange timing, through the next. Play with the waves, face in the wind, and you’ll make it; lose concentration and you’ll get sick. It’s simple. Up and down, riding like the dolphins around us.
We were aimed at Santa Cruz Island, which is just West (from our perspective: to the right) of Anacapa Island. Santa Cruz Island was right in front of us. The island, which was once just an outline-in-gray, emerged in detail and color: green hills above rocky, grey-beige cliffs, with gulls appearing, the closer we got, as small specks in the sky. We aimed toward the East of the island, where most of the passengers would disembark for their camping and day-hiking at Scorpion Anchorage, before heading towards Prisoner’s Harbor, where twenty of us were heading—half for the day hike, half for camping.
We headed further East, toward, then past, Scorpion Anchorage. Then, past the entire island. The wind picked up, howled static into my ears, and, pressing against my body, forced me against the wall of the bridge. The large swells that rocked us up and down disappeared, and small, choppy peaks formed all around us—some with little white-caps on top of them. The captain drifted the boat in-between the two islands, searching. The boat sat staring out, all eyes on the horizon that unfolded endlessly into a thin line. We waited. Our journey was suspended for now.
In the distance, a small mist appeared as a blip on the horizon. The captain slowed the boat further and grabbed the microphone. The bow of the boat filled with people. Another mist, closer this time. “Two grey whales,” said the captain. One waved its tail at us, dropping down on a dive to the ocean floor. The other followed. It was a sounding dive, which is what these whales use to gain their bearings on their migration from Alaska to Mexico—about a 5,000-mile journey. The whale scouted the bottom of the 40-foot-deep ocean floor, right at the border of a 900-foot drop-off, above which we floated. These soundings last for four minutes, usually. So we waited—at two minutes, one of the whales spouted, its back rose above the surface, and its tail waved in the air. The other appeared soon after, coming up for a breath. And we just floated there, watching. The woman next to me indicated several other spouts from several other whales further on the horizon. It is whale migration season, after all. Here we were, experiencing it.
Here we were, drifting on a boat, completely out of our way, in the gap between two solid, cliffy Channel Islands—the gap which is that opening to the rest of the world—waiting 900-feet above the ocean floor for two whales, migrating from Alaska (nearly 2,000 miles away) to come up, breach the surface, breathe, and wave their giant whale-tails at us on their journey to Mexico, while more of these giant mammals made water spouts all around us, swimming below us and around us and down the coast. What a stretch their journey was, which happens like clockwork every whale-migration season. We watched nature’s ritual unfold. I was beaming, for this, out at sea, is the world we live in. Have you, too, forgotten? We paused our schedule for these timeless moments, waiting for whales, if only to remember a life other than our own.
We said bye to the whales (“bye whales!”), resuming our route toward the cliffs and rocks of Santa Cruz Island. Dropped off at Prisoner’s Harbor: a hike. Up and down, up and down (and again, a few more times), foxes, flowers, strange plants (I always think “this looks like mars” whenever something looks strange, even though I have not been to mars, and it probably doesn’t look like mars), the coast, for four miles. It was good there. I can’t imagine that this would have been a punishing place for prisoners to harbor.
On the way back, I caught our hiking guide from the National Park Service sitting on a rock, halfway through the trail. “Just watching the whales,” she said, on a Wednesday afternoon. I stood, she sat, and for a moment she pointed towards the oceans. We watched whales spout. I caught my breath. What a life!
On the way back home, a new party of people entered the boat, all excited. One sat next to me, pointing to my camera lens. “Shoot any good birds?” he asked. “No, not really. This is more for the whales,” I said. The party was a birding crew. I walked back up to the front of the boat, where I stood on the way to the island. Another man asked the same question. “I don’t know too much about birds,” I said (I also don’t know much about whales, I didn’t say). A third woman came up to both of us. “See any Boobies?” she asked, incredibly excited. She was referring to the bird. Holding back the urge to say, “no, I’m gay,” I responded, “I don’t think so.” Most of us on the boat searched for more whales, while the eager birder stared at the gulls.
I talked to the Boobies woman, and she told me about the Christmas bird count—in which thirteen citizen scientists counted slightly more than 2,100 birds and 71 species of birds. She was totally hyped up on this knowledge. And I told her a bit about religious studies, and she said that religions are attempts at explanations for natural phenomena. Like, she said, that one time she saw a total eclipse. It was completely amazing, unbelievable. Of course we need an explanation for it. I nodded (this is the rationalist approach to religion—I prefer no explanations, leaving the experience intact). We watched dolphins (bottlenose, common dolphin) circle the boat around sunset.
I thought of what it means for a seagull to be a seagull. It just flies and hunts for food and sits on the water. I’m not sure that a seagull wonders what it’s supposed to do for the day. And I’m not quite sure that a dolphin’s life is as simple as the seagull’s, given that it’s got a much larger brain, but a dolphin lives a dolphin’s life. And the whales’ life—up and down the coast, probably simple. But here we are as humans, on the boat, with a bit more of a murky question towards life; its answers howling static in our ears as we watch the whales. At least the citizen-scientists from the Christmas bird count didn’t all seem like existentialists or nihilists or complete religious fanatics; so that we could watch the whales and birds and wilderness around us without the subtle self-centered narcissism that relentlessly asks questions of meaning and our own lives.
As we entered the harbor, a mass of pelicans and gulls filled the sky. I left the boat, ran across the street, and watched the sunset. It was a good day.