The Channel Islands are not just where Pablo Chalott works as a guide three to five days a week. They’re his muse. So, on his days off from leading kayak tours through the island’s sea caves, he heads out, trusty Canon EOS A2 film camera in hand, and gets to work on a personal project: a photographic portfolio of the roughly 140 unique flora and fauna on the island.
Step one: rolling off his cozy REI self-inflating camp bed at the guide campsite, brewing a cup of coffee, lacing on his trusty Timberlands, and taking a hike through the Scorpion Valley of Santa Cruz Island, where he spends most of this time.
Chalott has worked as a guide with Santa Barbara Adventure Company for two years, but he’s been coming to the Channel Islands for much longer than that. He grew up in Oxnard, a town that sits just north of LA, opposite the park’s five rugged Pacific islands. In grade school, he came to the islands for class trips; eventually, he went to Cal State University Channel Islands to get his degree in art. He works in mixed media—watercolor, photography, polaroids bleeding ink, but his go-to is black-and-white film.
A series of his Channel Island landscape shots hang in the ranger station on nearby Anacapa Island, remnants of a science-and-art workshop he took part in, joining biologists at a research station for a five-week stint. The combination of the natural and artistic worlds stuck. Guiding out here was the natural next step after working as a surf instructor and portraitist in Oxnard.
Chalott walks quietly along a dry creek bed rimmed with morning glories, through a green meadow, up hillsides of dry grass. Overhead, Devil’s Peak, the Channel Islands’ highest mountain, wears Pacific Ocean mist like a crown. He stops to photograph what looks like a massive dandelion, white with seeds ready to be blown away. “I love to shoot plants,” he says. “You capture a moment. They bloom and then they die. It’s never here more than once.”
Today, Chalott wants to photograph a Channel Island scrub-jay, which is a much larger bird than its coastal cousin. “They’re always around in the campground, but I can never catch them out here in the wild,” he says.
He stops to listen for the jay’s call. “I don’t think the island has changed my artistic eye. But I do think it has changed my artistic ear,” he says. “All the sounds are inspiring. When I wake up, the birdsong is all around me immediately and it makes me feel safe.”
The jay is nowhere to be found so Chalott decides to look elsewhere for inspiration: the sea. He fell in love with snorkeling several years ago during a surf trip to Indonesia. The Channel Islands have some of the most vibrant diving in all of the US. Now, in May, the water has just edged to a chilly 59 degrees, so he squeezes into his 4.3mm Xcell Drylock wetsuit, then climbs into the water with one of the richest kelp forests on the island, as the seaweed dances with the swell below. Dark kelp bass, brilliant blue opaleye and bright-orange garibaldi—the state fish of California—dart among the kelp, a massive, flowing forest canopy viewed from above.
As opposed to surfing, snorkeling in the ebb and flow near the rocky shoreline makes him feel fluid, he says, “like I can flow with the sea.” Inspiration comes differently underwater. “When I’m out here, I really appreciate color. The water is this clear blue, and the kelp forest becomes a sea of yellows and greens,” he says.
In the evening, Chalott hikes along the sea cliffs on the island’s northernmost side. He snaps a photo of a succulent, his camera equipped with a 50mm lens. “I see some abstraction there,” he says, pointing to one pinkish branch. “But sometimes I also like to just shoot a plant as a plant.” He takes a seat on a bench of rock and dirt that seems nearly custom-made to watch the sun drop over the horizon. “Last photo of the day,” he says. The shutter snaps and he sets the camera to his side.
“I love that it’s almost uninhabited out here and that it has such massive biodiversity, especially marine life,” Chalott says. “The Chumash people who first lived here believed this island was the source of all life. Their creation story said that they walked across a rainbow bridge to get here. Those who looked down were turned into dolphins.” As if on cue, the setting sun lays a beam of pink light across the ocean, straight to him.
If he could, would he want to live here permanently — the 141st unique species on the island? “Of course,” he says.
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