Boating Turns Me Green. But I Couldn’t Miss a Chance to See the Channel Islands. from Outside Alison Osius


Sliding my head through the bright orange life vest, I listen to the expedition leader walk us through emergency evacuation protocols. Almost 100 of us are gathered in the lounge toward the bow of the National Geographic Quest, an expedition ship scheduled for a five-day journey to the Channel Islands.

“In the unlikely event” of our ship sinking, he says, we need to know how to put these vests on—and how to buckle them properly to keep our heads out of the water if we get knocked out. It’s standard safety speak, but hardly settles my anxiety.

Coming ashore at Little Harbor, on Catalina Island in the Channel Islands (Photo: Graham Averill)

I don’t like boats. I’ve never liked boats. There’s the bit about sinking, sure, but mostly, boats make me sick. The nausea starts as soon as I step aboard and continues until several hours after disembarking. Honestly, most forms of transportation make me sick. Planes, cars, trains, buses, roller coasters … I even avoid rocking chairs.

I’ve developed a scientific method, which is to drink a beer or two during a train ride or boat ride to help relax my inner ear and manage my nausea. This sounds horrible to most people but works for me. However, I’ll be on this boat for five days. My liver can’t handle that much science.

“This is only a drill”: the safety talk before the boat heads out. (Photo: Graham Averill)

Though a travel writer, I’ve turned down every opportunity for a cruise or even a day sail. But the idea of an expedition cruise to a place I’ve always wanted to see intrigued me. Two months ago I set aside my irrational fears and my practical concerns and decided to go.

As the cruise date approached, I wondered in irritation, Why did I say I’d do this? But I’m committed to hop aboard the Quest, and I have my reasons. Part of me is curious whether I can even survive so many days on a boat, but mostly, I want to see what an expedition cruise is like. And I have always wanted to explore the Channel Islands.

Guests take Zodiacs from the ship to access the beach on Catalina Island.  (Photo: Graham Averill)

This isn’t your traditional cruise. Instead of an oversized, floating party bus hitting busy tourist ports, an expedition cruise uses state-of-the-art small ships as traveling basecamps to explore hard-to-reach locales, like the fjords of Greenland, the glaciated coast of Alaska, and the Antarctic Ice Sheet. This particular opportunity was aboard a National Geographic-branded ship, operated by Lindblad Expeditions.

Inspiration Point, Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park (Photo: Tim Hauf/

With room for 100 guests and 60 crew, the Quest to me—someone who is used to kayaks and river rafts—looks like a miniature version of the Titanic, not a great reminder for someone afraid of boats. Still, it is taking us to the Channel Islands, a small archipelago 40 miles off the coast of Southern California, and will provide a base of operations for bouncing around these mountainous cays in the Pacific.

A few hours after the safety talk, we push off across the channel, and the nausea kicks in. I don’t throw up, I just want to. It’s even worse the next morning, and I skip breakfast because lying down is the only thing that keeps me from chumming the waters.

A small group of guests explores 40-foot Arch Rock, off the coast of Anacapa Island. (Photo: Graham Averill)

I decide I was right all along; boats are stupid, and I count the days until I can get off the ship. But after breakfast (a nibble of a granola bar, for me), we load into Zodiacs for our first taste of adventure, and my attitude changes entirely.

What to Do on Catalina Island

There are eight Channel Islands, five of which are designated as Channel Islands National Park. The first on our agenda, Catalina, sits outside of the park, but 88 percent of it is protected as a preserve by the Catalina Island Conservancy. Catalina Island has one small town, Avalon, with a permanent population of 3,000, while the rest is wild, with nothing but dirt roads and hiking trails for infrastructure.

The harbor town of Avalon, on Santa Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California. The ship makes port here. (Photo: Ryan Tishken/Getty)

The paddleboard adventure I originally signed up for is canceled because of an increasing swell, so I join a moderate, three-mile hike on a mix of dirt roads, game trails, and a small piece of the 40-mile Trans Catalina Trail, which cuts a line along the mountains of the island, to traverse the bluffs surrounding Little Harbor, a rocky cove with a small campground.

I’m a sucker for a craggy coastline, and the views stack up: the 50-foot-tall bluffs that outline the coast are occasionally interrupted by golden beaches, while the endless blue of the Pacific Ocean melts into the horizon. From a high perch on the edge of the island, I get a kick out of seeing the Quest slowly bobbing in the swell off the coast. I really like boats when I’m standing on land. They’re pretty, and I don’t worry about them sinking at all.

The Channel Islands have been dubbed North America’s Galapagos because they’ve evolved in relative isolation, never connected to the mainland. There are more than 150 endemic species on the islands, the terrain of which is a mixture of desert scrub brush, lush grass prairies, and steep cliffs.

An island fox darts around in Channel Islands National Park. Because of evolution in isolation, foxes here are small, only about five to seven pounds. (Photo: Courtesy Tim Coonan/NPS)

On Catalina are bison, introduced in the 1920s during a film shoot (there’s debate as to which film), as well as a troublesome population of feral cats. Seeing bison is always a treat—we see one later on this hike, munching grass on a distant hillside—whether it’s supposed to be there or not, and I’ve always thought populations of cats turning feral was weird.

But the native species throughout the island chain are even more interesting, like the ginormous squirrels, which are roughly 25 percent larger than those on the mainland. In a phenomenon known as “island gigantism,” a species thrives because of a lack of competition for resources. But the native fox on the islands has evolved in the other direction and are tiny, usually between five and seven pounds. (Adult foxes in North America typically weigh seven to 15 pounds.)

Hikers make their way back to the ship on a scenic route above the cliffs of Santa Rosa. (Photo: Graham Averill)

The Quest was built with a shallow draft, which means it can venture into waters close to land, and on its stern are twin boarding platforms where guests can load into Zodiacs to go ashore. Aft in the ship is a large dining room, up forward is a sizable lounge, and both are loaded with windows to maximize the views. It’s all very civilized, with a small library of wildlife and geography books in the lounge, a well-equipped gym and a massage room, yoga on the top deck in the morning, and charcuterie and cocktails before dinner.

Silver bush lupine in a field at Carrington Point on Santa Rosa Island. Carrington Point hosts seals and sea lions, tidal pools, an ocean blowhole, and a natural rock arch over the water. (Photo: Tim Hauf/

The idea behind any expedition cruise is that passengers should spend as much time off the boat as on, hiking, paddling, and cruising the coast in zippy little boats. The National Geographic expeditions are staffed with professional naturalists who give the whole experience a “semester at sea” vibe. There are the expedition leader, who adjusts plans based on conditions; a birding expert; a pro photographer to teach us how to take better photos; marine biologists, who dive and film the thriving kelp forests beneath the surface to show us slide shows during cocktail hour; and ornithologists who give talks and lead excursions.

National Geographic also puts a resident National Geographic Explorer onboard for each trip. I’m cruising with Greg Marshall, a biologist and filmmaker who invented the CritterCam, changing the way wildlife research is collected—imagine a GoPro designed for animals. Marshall has an Emmy, and he’s hiking with us, giving talks, and teaching me how to keep my shoes dry during a beach landing in our Zodiac.

The author’s untraditional seasickness solution. Did we mention that cruises are pretty fun? (Photo: Graham Averill)

Ship life is completely new to me. The crew uses terms like “disembark” and “doff,” the specific verbiage providing a certain gravitas to the situation.

Torrey Pines tumble toward Water Canyon Beach on Santa Rosa Island, as fog creeps in. These pines are found only here and in one other place. (Photo: Courtesy Derek Lohuis/NPS)

As for the guests, at 47, I’m on the younger end of the spectrum. A few people in their 20s, including some young women van lifers, are scattered around, but the boat is mostly full of retirees, the adventurous kind. I strike up a friendship with a fit 65-year-old guy from Boise, Idaho, with decades of backcountry skiing experience.

I meet a nice grandmother who is a passionate birder, traveling the world to see different species. I have a wonderful conversation with Bernie and Maryanne, a retired couple who’ve been to 59 national parks. They’re ticking off their 60th park with this cruise and plan to hit Katmai in Alaska later this summer. “We hike,” Maryanne tells me. “We don’t just drive through them.”

Setting anchor off the coast of Anacapa Island  (Photo: Graham Averill)

An expedition cruise has a rhythm. The ship travels at night, anchoring offshore at different islands as we progress through the journey, and we embark on various activities between meals during the day. The bartender usually meets us with a tray of fresh cocktails in the mudroom after each adventure.

I spend every meal at a different table meeting new people. Afternoons feature presentations about endemic birds or photography techniques while the passengers munch on hors d’oeuvres. At lunch one day, one of the naturalists runs into the dining room shouting, “Dolphins, dolphins!” and we all rush to the window to look.

Skunk Point on Santa Rosa Island supports diverse marine life and populations of seabirds and shorebirds, including the threatened snowy plover. (Photo: Tim Hauf/

The adventures are mild—mostly hiking and Zodiac tours of the coast—but the terrain is stunning. The Channel Islands are full of wildflowers, like native hyacinth and buckwheat; wild creatures, like the pretty blue island scrub jay and the surprisingly cute spotted skunk; and dramatic cliffs. I give into the rhythm, and the nausea fades. This could be due to the steady ingestion of Dramamine, which I’ve also brought along, or maybe I’m just getting used to life at sea.

Best Hiking Trails in Channel Islands National Park (Photo: Courtesy Gaia GPS)

What to Do on Santa Rosa Island

For me, the highlight of the trip is an 8.5-mile hike around Santa Rosa Island, which some would argue is the jewel of the park, because of its tall cliffs, sand dunes, and grove of Torrey Pines. That particular species of evergreen is only found on this island and on one cliff in La Jolla, California.

The Torrey Pine forest at Bechers Bay on Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands National Park (Photo: Tim Hauf/

My small hiking group sees a tiny fox meandering around the shade of the Torrey Pines, but I’m most impressed with the expansive, waist-high grassy meadows that roll all the way down to the edge of the island, where 100-foot vertical cliffs drop straight to the Pacific.

Two of America’s most iconic landscapes—prairie and the craggy coast—blend into one.

What to Do on Anacapa Island

On our last full day, I wake up before the sun rises and see the moon casting shadows through a 40-foot-tall rock arch just off the coast of Anacapa Island. Sea lions, the Pacific Ocean’s answer to the rooster, bark as the sun comes up. The joy of an expedition cruise is that you close your eyes to one view and wake up to another.

An aerial view of Anacapa Island, Channel Islands National Park, shows the often-steep shoreline. These remote cliffs are nesting sites for many land and sea birds. (Photo: Courtesy NPS)

Choppy conditions keep us from making it ashore, so we take a Zodiac cruise, getting a close up view of the famed Arch Rock, a 40-foot-tall upside-down horseshoe of a rock that protrudes from the ocean, and seeing colonies of sea lions lounging on the black, rocky beaches.

I wonder if the sea lions have to jockey for the best spots on the beach, or if some sort of social hierarchy determines their positioning. The naturalist at the helm of our Zodiac says it’s very cordial, telling us that sea lions are “positively thigmotactic,” which in layman’s terms means they’re prone to snuggle.

Heading back to the mother ship for drinks, dinner, and a talk. (Photo: Graham Averill)

It hits me that I haven’t been anxious since that first day. Somewhere between the post-Zodiac-cruise hot toddies and a presentation about the indigenous Chumash, I forgot all about the ship potentially sinking. The sickness comes and goes, but I don’t let it bother me. Nothing I was originally worried about troubles me anymore. If we sink, I know how to put on the life vest. If I get sick, I get sick.

But I’m onshore a lot hiking. I’m convinced that the expedition cruise is a hell of a way to travel. Imagine a high-end hotel staffed with expert guides, only the hotel moves to a different badass location every night while you sleep. And did I mention the bartender meeting us with trays of cocktails?

Four Small Expedition Cruises Worth Taking

National Geographic Lindblad Expeditions

Lindblad has 17 ships venturing into seas and bays all over the world. The Wild California Escape: Channel Islands is a great option if you’re curious about this style of travel, and it’s less expensive and shorter than some other options (five days, from $3,310 per person). But their Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falklands trip, in October 2024, is a potential banger full of penguins and ice formations, with a visit to the gravesite of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Peter Hillary, a mountaineer and the son of Sir Edmund Hillary, who in 1953 with Tenzing Norgay first climbed Everest, is the onboard Nat Geo Explorer (22 days, from $28,304 per person).

Quark Expeditions

Quark specializes in arctic exploration, with ships traversing the coldest seas across the globe. Their 12-day Under the Northern Lights expedition, with a boat capacity of 128 passengers, takes in the sights of Iceland and Greenland, allowing you to experience fjords, hike in the tundra, and visit Inuit communities (from $8,396 per person).

Viking Cruises

Viking operates a variety of cruises in different locations, but their 10-day Great Lakes Treasures trip, boat capacity of 378 passengers, gives you a chance to see the wilder side of North America’s inland sea. You’ll kayak among pink-granite islands in Canada and hike to waterfalls along Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula (from $7,995 per person).  

Adventure Smith Explorations

Alaska is the number-one destination for expedition cruises, and Adventure Smith Explorations operates an eight-day journey that includes two full days within Glacier Bay National Park. Capacity is 76 and 84 passengers on two different ships respectively. Daily adventures revolve around kayaking and hiking,with the chance to see puffins, whales, and bears (from $4,300 per person).  

Graham Averill is Outside magazine’s national-parks columnist. He is amazed to have survived five days on a boat and even more amazed to want to do it again.

Author on board (Photo: Graham Averill)

For more by this author, Graham Averill, see:

Put These Beautiful National Monuments on Your Must-See List

The 5 Best National Park Road Trips in the U.S.

The 9 Most Fun Adventure Lodges in North America


The 9 Best Gateway Towns to U.S. National Parks





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