August 28, 2019

What a Difference an MPA Makes! A Summary of the 2019 Channel Islands EcoExpedition

By Selena McMillan, Southern California Regional Manager, Reef Check California
Photos by Selena McMillan unless otherwise indicated

This year, twenty Reef Check Volunteers joined the Channel Islands EcoExpedition to survey several sites along California’s Northern Channel Islands. We successfully completed six sites at Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands in two days. Due to high winds and big surf, we were not able to make it to our most remote sites at Santa Rosa Island, but instead managed to get in one day of fun diving at some new places on the back side of Santa Cruz Island.

On the evening of August 4th, everyone boarded the dive charter, the Peace, to sleep through the crossing to Santa Cruz Island. The ride was rather bumpy as the weather had turned, and high winds were creating a large rolling swell. We woke up early the morning of the 5th and after breakfast, coffee, and a thorough briefing of Reef Check protocols and dive plans, we hopped in the water and surveyed our first site, Cueva Valdez. This reef is outside of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) and was devoid of kelp, covered in urchins and mussel shells, but did have a few large sheepshead on the deeper transects. We then heard from Captain Steven that the weather report had changed for the worse, and we should change course to try to survey our sites on Santa Rosa Island. After thirty minutes of pounding the boat against the swell, we had to turn around and return to Santa Cruz, knowing that Santa Rosa was probably not going to happen on this trip.

We completed our second survey at Fry’s Anchorage. This site is also not located in an MPA and was similar to Cueva Valdez with very little kelp, but some more variety of invertebrates and fish to count. When we surfaced and found the weather had gotten worse, we hurried back to the boat to move on to the next site, hoping that it was more sheltered from the increasing winds and strong currents.

Our final site of the day, Pelican Anchorage, was an oasis compared to Fry’s Anchorage. It was calm, sheltered from the winds, and had more kelp to count. We decided to anchor there for the night and had a wonderful meal of prime rib, halibut and a lovely veggie roast. Some folks did a night dive, while many of us stayed on board watching the bioluminescence , pelagic red crabs, and flying fish feeding and flying around the boat.

The next morning, we completed our sites on Santa Cruz Island by surveying Scorpion Anchorage which is located inside a State Marine Reserve (SMR). This area is filled with pinnacles and shallow reefs. All of those who had nothing to do during kelp surveys the day before, were now busy counting Giant Kelp, Pterygophora, Laminaria, and Southern Sea Palm. We saw tons of invertebrates and lots of fish. Many of our volunteers commented on the huge difference they observed between the three sites we surveyed the day before that were outside of MPAs compared to this site in an MPA. What a difference an MPA makes!

We then moved to Anacapa Island to complete our last two sites of our survey trip. Goldfish Bowl and Cathedral Cove are both in MPAs and are favorites among our volunteers. Both sites have healthy kelp forests and we saw lots of large fish and many species of invertebrates including Pink and Green Abalone. Once those sites were surveyed, we motored around the east side of Anacapa and got a good look at the lighthouse and beautiful arches there. We then went to the backside of Santa Cruz for the night, with the hope of doing a couple of fun dives the next day.

On our final day of the trip, we were able to dive at Gull Island before the winds picked up. This dive was amazing! We found a mixture of Southern and Northern California species, purple hydrocoral, large schools of Sheepshead, many species of rockfish, colonial corals, tons of invertebrates, and a huge stand of giant kelp. We then went to Flame Reef, where we saw lots of brittle stars, keyhole limpets and several species of nudibranchs. A great day of fun diving for everyone on board. We made our way back to the dock in Ventura, getting home early but satisfied after a wonderful trip on board the Peace. Despite not being able to dive Santa Rosa Island, our trip was extremely successful. We are all looking forward to Channel Islands Expedition 2020!

Photo: Ivan Girling

Photos: Susy Horowitz