Program Director for the Nature Conservancy, Channel Islands
Eamon O’Byrne learned to “hand, reef, and steer” during his tenure at America’s only floating national park, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park located in the waters off the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood. It was there he truly became a sailor, among the masts of those wonderful old ships. He joined the Nature Conservancy in 2008 and is now the Channel Islands program director, leading the effort to protect and restore the unique ecosystems of the islands off the California coast. The Nature Conservancy (nature.org) owns and manages 76 percent of Santa Cruz Island, the largest and most biodiverse of the Channel Islands.
Sea: What type of boat is your favorite? Where are some of your favorite places to visit?
Eamon: I’m a huge fan of the J 105. It’s such a fun boat to sail, whether you’re racing or cruising. I’ve found it to be a pretty forgiving boat, too, either surfing down the San Francisco Bay chop in blistering afternoon winds or chugging along the waterfront in a light breeze sundowner.
I think my favorite of all the places I’ve sailed are the islands of the Kingdom of Tonga, in the South Pacific. I have very fond memories of lazily sailing the trade winds from one pristine anchorage to another, and snorkeling magnificent coral reefs and caves. On Sundays, I’d lie in my bunk listening to the locals singing beautiful Polynesian harmonies at church.
Can you give us some Dos and Don’ts for boating in the Channel Islands?
Definitely bring your kayak, snorkel gear and hiking boots! Kayaking around the sea caves on the eastern end of the Santa Cruz Island is a must. Scorpion Harbor has some fantastic snorkeling and is the starting point for the best hiking trails on the island. Pelican Harbor is a snug and beautiful anchorage with great swimming and access to a short but scenic nature trail that begins at Prisoner’s Harbor. Keep your eyes open, and you’ll be rewarded with island fox and island scrub-jay sightings. You won’t see these animals anywhere else in the world!
The Channel Islands are incredibly fragile landscapes, home to many rare and endangered plants and animals. For this reason, we ask boaters to take some special precautions when visiting the islands, so they don’t unwittingly transport invasive species or diseases. We also ask boaters not to remove anything from the islands. I strongly recommend that boaters visit our website for guidance before they make the crossing.
Can you tell us more about the sea caves and their significance?
The islands formed somewhere near present-day San Diego several million years ago, and in their long journey north, they have been carved and sculpted by nature to produce some spectacular sea caves throughout the archipelago. The Painted Cave on the northwestern shore of Santa Cruz Island, with a mile-and-a-half depth, is one of the longest and deepest in the world. It gets its name from the colors created by the different rock types, lichens and algae. It’s an eerie and beautiful place.
What was the key to success for the island fox population rebound?
Once on the brink of ecological collapse, Santa Cruz Island is a leading example of successful island restoration and innovative conservation. It’s incredibly rewarding to witness the Santa Cruz Island fox rebound in what will mark the fastest land-mammal recovery in the history of the Endangered Species Act. This was the result of a coordinated, multifaceted effort by The Nature Conservancy and island partners using the best possible science.
How can the boating community get involved with the Conservancy?
There are lots of ways that the boating community can get involved with supporting The Nature Conservancy’s mission on the Channel Islands, and around the world. Opportunities to donate, volunteer or even to come work for us can be found on our website. I also believe that the boating community has a special responsibility to be a leading voice for conservation and environmental stewardship. After all, it’s our community that has unique opportunities to visit remote and wild places like islands that can’t reached any other way than by boat, so it’s really important that we speak up for their protection.
What projects are you currently working on for the Channel Islands?
When The Nature Conservancy began working on the Channel Islands over 40 years ago, climate change was a tiny cloud on the horizon. Now it’s the most serious threat facing the archipelago, and the emphasis of our work has shifted to include ecosystem resilience. We’ve got several really exciting projects using new advances in genetics, technology and archaeology to help us fi gure out how the islands have adapted to change over time, and what we can do to help them handle the impacts of climate change in the future. One of the practical applications of these projects will be to strengthen the science behind our efforts to reintroduce island plants and animals that died out as a result of past land-use practices.
Why is Santa Cruz Island often compared to the Galapagos?
The Galapagos are famous for the sheer variety (and oddity) of the species that are only found there, and people make the comparison to illustrate how diverse the array of life is on Santa Cruz Island, the largest and most biodiverse of California’s eight Channel Islands. However, and this a point of pride for us, there are actually more species across the Channel Islands than the Galapagos. Although admittedly, we have nothing quite like the marine iguana!
But for me there is another important comparison. As Darwin discovered, islands are great places to ask and answer fundamental questions about the natural world. He discovered the story of the origins of life on this planet, and we believe the Channel Islands will make important contributions to our understanding of how to keep that life thriving and healthy into the future.