>San Miguel Island is a tough place. It's tough to get there, tough to stay there and tough to dive there. The northern- and westernmost of the California Channel Islands, it lies so close to Point Conception (26 miles) that it's constantly battered by storms from the northwest. The tiny island itself offers little protection; with an area of 14 square miles and a maximum height of only 831 feet, swell and gusts wrap heartily around its rocky, treeless perimeter. Fogbanks and mist are so common that their absence usually indicates wind — and the boat's imminent departure. Bathed by the cold California Current, the island's ocean waters are regularly several degrees lower than those encountered in the rest of Channel Islands National Park. But as you might have guessed, the isolation and chilly water are the draw — this magical combination supports a trove of north-meets-south marine abundance that is unique in California.
>Wyckoff Ledge is a simplistic name for the elaborate network of meandering walls and boulders that make up one of San Miguel's signature dives. We descend to a ledge at 60 feet, and the initial blast of color — emerald-green water, pink and orange anemones, blue schooling rockfish — greets me as shockingly as the temperature, a chilly 49°F. We make our way through lush kelp, photographing cabezon and losing a stare-down with a lingcod so large that my dive buddy writes, "Linglog!" on his slate. Back on board, thrilled as we are with our wide-angle sightings, it seems the macro fanatics have won the marine-life lottery. We've barely shed our tanks before we're being shown images of rare nudibranchs, a decorated warbonnet and a tiny, almost impossibly violet juvenile wolf eel.
>We finish the dive day at nearby Judith Rock Pinnacle, a needlelike, bull-kelp-covered structure that plummets sharply from 50 to 200 feet. With the sun low in the sky, we decide to photograph small subjects here, and we're rewarded with incredible nudibranch density. I see 15 different species of the colorful invertebrates before my dive is over.
>The ocean appears calm the next morning, placid enough to venture to the front of the island and visit the most exposed sites in the Channel Islands. A row of impressive seamounts rise above the surface along this side of Miguel. As we watch waves crash over them, we're reminded that even when the ocean is calm here, there is an unavoidable baseline of swell.
>Lover's Cove would offer a mellow respite but for the noise and stench that emanate from a yowling chorus of sea lions, fur seals, elephant seals and harbor seals on a stinking stretch of sand nearby. At least the breeze seems to be wafting the fragrance away from the boat. The water is flat and still, and our entire dive is at 45 feet. A fat harbor seal follows us at a distance, terrorizing the local blue rockfish and watching us inspect the maze of low-lying rocks inhabited by a riot of anemones, abalone and bat stars.
>Before long we're back on the boat. The ubiquitous fog bank has disappeared; a stiff breeze has taken its place. It's undoubtedly time to head for a more protected island. As I secure my gear I recall my seven-year hiatus, and I can't help but wonder gloomily how long it will be before I see this place again. But I know that worrying is futile. I'll have to rely on chance, hoping that good fortune will hasten my return. That's what Miguel is all about.
>Getting there: San Miguel Island is the most remote island in Channel Islands National Park and Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. It's often accessed during multiday, multi-island trips that include Anacapa, Santa Cruz and/or Santa Rosa. Most charters depart from Santa Barbara or Ventura, Calif. Boats generally board and depart at night for the six-(or more)-hour crossing. Even when San Miguel is the stated destination, wind and swell commonly necessitate a detour to a calmer location.
>How to Dive It
>Conditions: The water temperature ranges from 48°F to 65°F, depending on the time of year. A full 7 mm wetsuit with hood, boots and gloves is a must year-round, and a drysuit is a better choice in the winter and spring. Visibility ranges from 15 to more than 70 feet, with the best visibility and weather in the late summer and fall. Because of San Miguel's remoteness and the possibility of rapidly changing conditions, strong surge and extreme current, most sites are considered intermediate to advanced. Predive briefings are an important part of dive planning at San Miguel, and surface signaling devices are highly recommended.
>Topside adventure: There is a pinniped rookery on the southwest side of the island that can be viewed from the boat when the ocean is calm, though boats must not get too close (the distance varies by season). You can hike San Miguel's trails when a National Park Service staff member is on the island, though permits are required for going ashore.
>San Miguel Island is part of a national marine sanctuary, and there are several marine protected areas around the island, so many sites have regulations pertaining to harvesting and resource extraction. For detailed information about the marine reserve and marine protected areas, visit NPS.gov/chis or [channelislands.noaa.gov|https://channelislands.noaa.gov/].
>See more of what San Miguel Island has to offer in Andy and Allison Sallmon's bonus online photo gallery.
>© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2017