Fading swell from the south collided with moderate swell from the northwest. Rippled by southwest wind and a menacing wall of fast-approaching fog, I had much to consider as I bobbed and weaved by kayak while circumnavigating Point Bennett and the rest of San Miguel Island’s 27 miles of ragged coastline.
The Channel Islands National Park has always kept the wild in the wilderness, and it is no more evident than the pungent smells and cacophony of barks, bellows, and yelps of thousands of seals and sea lions at Point Bennett. The remote, wave-battered beach fortified by weather-beaten crags and bluffs allows for one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet: the largest congregation of pinnipeds on Mother Earth.
Point Bennett is difficult to paddle to. Maybe the pinnipeds know this and selected the gritty beach with gnarled fingers of sand extending in all directions, which is coveted by northern elephant seals, harbor seals, northern fur seals, and California sea lions. Also visiting are Steller sea lions and Guadalupe fur seals, isolation and the elements offering a safe haven on steep berms and teeming kelp forests.
The offer to be a volunteer interpretive ranger on San Miguel Island was too good to pass up. It was a nine-day trip last October to one of the wildest places in California, and there were several days spent hiking the 14-mile round-tripper to Point Bennett.
Observing the perpetual drama and disputes over territory and harems never wavered. Pups gathered in nurseries, waiting for their moms to return from the sea. The ultimate entertainment was pinniped body whomping in the heaving shore-break, especially the northern fur seal pups who fearlessly threw themselves into the biggest waves, where they were swept up and over those steep berms, only to fore-flipper their way back out for more.
I spent many hours concealed on the bluffs, peering through my binoculars and in the viewfinder of my camera, enjoying all that unfolded. However, I’ve always believed that kayaking was the best way to experience the Channel Islands National Park. I needed a favorable weather window, one that was relatively void of wind, swell, and fog. That was asking a lot, but in the middle of those nine days I found one, my kayak ready and waiting to launch from Cuyler Harbor.
I never doubted that things could go sideways out at Point Bennett, but to pass up the chance to witness raw nature in all its glory never entered my mind. After paddling past Castle Rock, I really concentrated, searching for a viable path between slabs of submerged rocks and capping waves.
Once inside Adams Cove, I felt at ease, resting atop the canopy of giant bladder kelp. I wrapped my left leg in it to stay in place and enjoyed the raucous, rambunctious northern fur seal pups who I surmised had never seen a kayaker before. Born in June, they were only a few months old. Their youthful exuberance knew no bounds as they playfully approached within a paddle-length of my kayak. A couple pups even bumped my boat, followed by big, demonstrative splashes, forcing me to cover my camera.
When they strained their necks to have a look at me, they revealed their Yoda-like ears and adorable pushed-in faces. Once a band of pups grew bored with me, another wave of them swam at me with not a care in the world.