Home » Travel » Santa Cruz: Spanish for “Isle of Corpses”? (Channel Islands, Day 1)

Santa Cruz: Spanish for “Isle of Corpses”? (Channel Islands, Day 1)

Kayaking at Little Scorpion, Santa Cruz, Channel Islands, California.
You can explore every nook and cranny of the cove in a kayak.

It seemed to bode well that we had quite the picture-perfect sailing day as our boat, Sun Soleil (repetitive, no?), motored through the marina at Channel Islands Harbor. The sun was high in the azure sky and a few billowy clouds floated about as a slight breeze carried us to the harbor inlet towards the open ocean. However, our first misfortune befell us before we’d even made it past the breakwater: Our craft’s motor wouldn’t start after we stopped for gas. Sally, whom Cap’n Gary had designated his first mate, theorized that our luck was due to the presence of bananas — a no-no at sea, she explained. An hour later and a visit from a Marina Sailing mechanic, we were finally on our way, crossing the slight chop under both motor and sail to make up for the lost time.

We arrived at Pelican Bay around 6PM, where there were already a few other boats anchored. After ferrying our cap’n over to the Synapse, our sister boat, our crew of four dragged our dinghy ashore for a brief exploration. As we rowed to land, we spotted a bleached white blob floating in the water and paddled near it until we realized it was a sea lion carcass, a foul-smelling one at that.

Basking shark corpse on Santa Cruz, Channel Islands, California
Chris stands next to the body of a 26-foot basking shark, believed to have died after becoming entangled in a fishing net.

Once on shore, we found a small waterfall — a trickle, really — then headed in the opposite direction to Little Pelican, where we found a most unusual sight. Lying at the edge of the incoming tide was an enormous carcass — shark or whale, we couldn’t be sure. Chris, the resident expert on aquatic critters, having trained dolphins for several years, poked the enormous body with a stick trying to discern what the hell it could be. He estimated the body to be about 22 feet, but with most of the head already rotted and submerged under the beach’s rocks, it was difficult to know how large it had been when it had been alive, let alone what the creature had been. We saw what we thought might be claspers, indicating shark, but we weren’t aware of sharks in these waters that grew to such a length. Although great whites weren’t uncommon, it didn’t have the markings of the species, nor had either of us heard of one that big.

Despite our CSI attempts, we knew one thing for certain: The animal had died after being caught in a fishing net, the remains of which were still wrapped around its maggot-riddled body (see video below). It had probably been dead for more than a few days, as evidenced by its distended belly, upon which sat a rock — either as a sign of respect from a previous passerby or at attempt to cause the carcass to explode, we weren’t sure. On the off chance that the corpse was that of the incredibly rare Megamouth shark, which I’d recently read had only been sighted or caught less than 50 times, Chris extracted some teeth from the corpse’s mouth. They were smaller than human teeth and pointed, not conical like that of a whale’s, so we kept them in the hopes we could ask an expert once we’d returned to the mainland.

Santa Cruz, Channel Islands, California
We welcomed the chance to be on dry land and to get a little hiking in.

We met up with the crew of the Synapse, showed them our odorous discovery, then hiked a nearby ridge for a view of the sunset before hiking back down the stairs of the erstwhile Pelican Bay hotel and paddling back to our vessel. After a dinner of mayonnaise-basted fish (I opted for a veggie burger), we headed topside for an unspoiled view of the Perseids, which delivered some jaw-dropping meteor-shower scenes.

Our first day in the “Galapagos of North America” and the only wildlife we’d spotted was of the dead, putrid-smelling variety.


Day 1:
Santa Cruz: Spanish for “Isle of Corpses”?
Day 2: Stampede of the Sea Lions
Day 3: Anacapa: Unbagged

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