Island Packers resumes trips to Channel Islands
Boat trips are back on the Central Coast, which means that animal lovers, seafaring residents and curious visitors can leave their pandemic stresses on land and venture out on the Santa Barbara Channel.
On Feb. 5, 30 travelers and locals did just that, hopping off the Ventura Harbor and onto the Islander, a 64-foot long catamaran that took to the sea in search of whales, dolphins and any other marine life. The News-Press joined the trip during what crew members referred to as a near-perfect whale watching day — without a cloud in the sky or a swell in the water.
Those onboard the Island Packers boat saw thousands of dolphins, hundreds of California sea lions and, to everyone’s delight, the stars of the show.
Two gray whales.
Passengers of all ages were onboard the vessel. As they lined up along the rails of the bow or rushed to the stern to catch a glimpse of the dolphins or whales, the mood was filled with anticipation and joy.
Kids peered excitedly through binoculars. Adults recorded videos on their smartphones. And photographers gazed out at the dark blue water, longing for a chance at the perfect shot of a whale.
From the crisp ocean breeze as the boat cruised along the channel to the shocked gasps and happy shouts when a dolphin shot out of the water or a whale sprayed a geyser in the air, the trip provided what many needed during the pandemic — an escape. Strangers chatted about the weather, parents spent quality time with their kids, and friends delighted in the thrill of seeing animals in the wild.
Island Packers resumed the trips once again Jan. 29 after being closed for over a month due to the state’s stay-at-home order.
For the current journeys, boat riders must wear face coverings at all times and maintain social distancing. The boats can only fill up to 50% capacity.
However, guests can enjoy food and drinks from the galley throughout the trip as long as they consume them outside.
Cherryl Connally’s father founded Island Packers, and she has been with the family business for 47 years, now as a co-owner and manager of the office and marketing. She told the News-Press that since reopening, there have been more local whale watchers than ever.
“We’re getting a lot of travelers, people that are driving and visiting in RVs, but most of our business is local now, which was always hard to get the local travel business before because it’s in your own backyard,” Ms. Connally said. “We’re getting more of that now because they can’t go anywhere else. They’re so happy — it’s just a thrill for them to get out of the house and go.”
Island Packers Cruises is the official boat concessionaire for the Channel Islands National Park. The company offers year-round transportation to Santa Cruz and Anacapa Islands, along with summer and winter whale watching, birding excursions and harbor cruises. The business also takes boats out to Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara islands during certain months.
From December through mid-April, Pacific gray whales migrate annually from the feeding grounds of Alaska to the feeding grounds in Baja California. Winter whale watching trips last between three and three and a half hours, and passengers get to see Anacapa Island up close.
From mid-June through mid-September, Island Packers offers summer trips to see blue and humpback whales.
Crew members are trained to spot wildlife on the trips by looking for whale spouts, tail flips and, if they’re lucky, whales breaching through the water.
Luke Dutton was the captain of the boat on Feb. 5. He’s been working at Island Packers for 11 years now and driving the boat for seven of them.
“It feels really good to be back,” he told the News-Press as he navigated the passengers through the Santa Barbara Channel. “It’s always nice to be on the water. My job is finding whales and dolphins and spending time at the islands, so it’s always nice to be out here.”
Mr. Dutton had only taken two whale watching trips since the reopening, and on one of them, he said he and everyone onboard saw nine gray whales. On Feb. 5, whale watchers saw two whales spout and flip their tails, along with thousands of dolphins.
The captain told the passengers that for every one dolphin they saw hop out of the water, seven more dolphins were swimming underwater right alongside it.
“The vibe has been really, really good,” he told the News-Press. “I think everyone’s really appreciative and just happy to have somewhere to go and something to do that’s outside.
“We’re lucky that here in the channel, we see almost a third of the world’s entire species, so there’s many things that we can see all year round. It’s just all around a great experience, and I think it’s just a really nice time to be out here.”
Pedro Vasquez of Redondo Beach was onboard the Island Packers trip, along with a few of his friends from the Los Angeles area.
He expressed his excitement as he stood outside on the deck as the Islander left Ventura Harbor. At this point, no one knew for certain if whales would be spotted.
“We came here to enjoy the opportunity to experience life as we back away from COVID and to meet such wonderful people. You can see from the people on the boat that that’s what they want to do, to exercise being out here in the ocean,” he told the News-Press. “It’s a whole human element.”
Much like the whales came up to breathe fresh air on Saturday, the passengers on the Island Packers boat got a breath of fresh air too.
“It’s not about the whales,” Mr. Vasquez said as the trip began. “It’s about us going out and enjoying life and meeting people. We’re meeting people — that’s great, isn’t it?
“Look out there, it’s just gorgeous. So what if we don’t see them? What if we don’t see one whale? Well, we’re just going to have to try again.”