Exploring Sea Caves by Kayak
text and photos by Charles Donelan
One of the most absorbing and otherworldly day-trips in the Santa Barbara area — exploring the sea caves of Anacapa Island — is easy, fun, and guaranteed to be unlike anything you’ve done before. While the caves are relatively safe and accessible, unless you have extensive experience as both a kayaker and a traveler to the Channel Islands, you will need to hire a guide. Paddle Sports of Santa Barbara organized our tour, and our guide was the lively and informative Mark Olson. We set out on the 9:30 morning ferry from Oxnard Harbor and were back by 5:30 that evening. While overnight trips are available, and a second day would have allowed us to do considerably more, the three hours we were actually in the kayaks was a perfect introduction, and the ferry rides over and back were exciting and beautiful experiences in their own right.
Almost immediately after leaving the harbor, we were picked up by a playful pod of channel dolphins. The crew of the Vanguard, our ferry, is used to this common occurrence, and slowed the boat to take full advantage of the opportunity. On the return trip we were lucky enough to spot a blue whale, and once again the ferry ride was extended to include time waiting for a thorough and informative encounter with the world’s largest animal.
Upon arrival at the island, the ferry swung around the famous Anacapa Island rock arch in order to allow passengers to take photographs and observe the seals and sea lions that bask in the sun on the rocks surrounding it. The sheer number of birds and animals that live on and around the island is the first thing that amazes visitors. Gulls, pelicans, and oystercatchers are everywhere, sailing close to the boat and grazing on the large schools of fish in the area.
Soon enough we were at the Landing Cove and listening to the park ranger’s introductory speech, which described the various ways in which visitors need to be aware in order to preserve the natural environment of the island. The most striking instruction involved baby birds. “Don’t chase the chicks,” we were told. “They get confused and scared when you approach, and the consequences of driving them from their own territories could be serious for them.” This admonition held the key to understanding this marvelous place, so full of natural beauty and unique speciation. Every creature has a territory, and nowhere is that more apparent than on Anacapa, where the world’s most various and complex naturally occurring territorial systems — tide pools — exist in profusion.
Throughout the day thrilling sensations multiplied, but few compared with the first plunge off the dock in order to then clamber into our ocean kayaks. The tough plastic sit-on-top styled kayaks are ideal for what we set out to do — caving. First of all, their sturdy, scratch-resistant surface makes them less likely to sustain unsightly damage from the barnacles covering Anacapa’s sea-level volcanic rocks. Then there’s the issue of the layback, a maneuver one learns early in the sea cave exploration experience. Each cave is part of a hydraulic system, and every swell, no matter how gentle in appearance on the surface outside the caves, has a powerful influence on the water level within them.
A kayaker may enter the mouth of a cave with several feet of headroom, only to find it disappear in a few seconds as a new swell enters the cavern and sweeps the boat up to within a foot or less of the rock above. At these times it is better to be in an open kayak, which allows the paddler to lay back and stretch out until the interior swell subsides.
As annoying and potentially dangerous as these swells may sound, once you become used to them they are half the fun of exploring sea caves by kayak. Many of the caves are variegated inside, with keyholes and different levels and chambers that fill and empty with the changing water level. As you gain experience with handling the boat under these dynamic circumstances, the vast hydraulic system of the caves becomes a kind of natural water park, full of opportunities for exciting maneuvers and sudden water-assisted rushes and plunges.
There are many types of cave, and we tried a few, in order of progressively increasing difficulty and strangeness. The first entry brought us around an interior arch and back out to sea again through another exit. It was simple, yet to a first-timer, thoroughly amazing. Next we tried a cave with a shallow spot that drains and then fills rapidly on the incoming swell. As kelp rose up to surround my boat I was afraid that I would be left unable to paddle out, but just when panic set in, along came the swell and suddenly I was rushing downhill, powered without paddling out of the shallows and through the far mouth of the cave, like a kayaker in a whitewater river. The whole time we were investigating the caves, a remarkable variety of marine life seemed to be investigating us. Friendly seals swam right up to our kayaks and played around us like ocean versions of domesticated dogs. Birds flew to our left and right, then circled directly above us before sighting a nearby school of fish. The remarkably clear water allowed us to see the incredibly rich array of sea creatures that line the floor of the kelp forest below — starfish, sea anemones, crabs, lobsters, and even the occasional garibaldi, a bright orange fish that resembles an electric goldfish. Enveloping the entire scene was a constant soundtrack of bird cries and sea lion barks, along with the occasional sound of a particularly strong swell slapping the back of a short cave with an echoing pop.
Our final caving experience of the trip required steady nerves and a flashlight. Our guide, Mark, identified one cave entrance as the opening of a deep one; one which, in true Pirates of the Caribbean fashion, goes back far enough to take you out of sight of the entrance and into another world. Mark went first, and he was gone for five or 10 minutes. When he emerged, he handed the extra heavy-duty waterproof flashlight over and told me not to stop until I got to the back. “It’s okay — there’s plenty of room to turn around in there.”
I took the lantern with some trepidation. In 10 strokes, the entrance was out of sight and the lantern was my only light source. I had a difficult time paddling and holding the light, and my boat bumped first against one wall, then the other. I pressed on, and the cave broadened and the headroom became higher. I shifted my paddle as I drifted, and used both hands to play the light on the interior surface of the cave. It was at least 10 feet high and 15 feet wide, but I still couldn’t see the end of it. A musty sea cave smell more intense than any of the marine odors we encountered before surrounded me, and I tried to relax as my eyes adapted to the near-total darkness. I finally reached the back of the cave, some hundred or so feet from the entrance. The cave ended in a tiny beach-like landing area covered in shells. I lingered for a moment before spinning around, trying to think of a comparable experience. When I finally emerged into what was now the blinding light of a beautiful hot July afternoon, I was stunned by the transformative power of this journey into the rocky depths of these ancient islands.
When a blue whale was spotted on our way back, the Vanguard lay up for 10 minutes waiting for it to surface after a dive, and I was treated to a rare sight — the fluke of a blue whale’s tail flung against the horizon. It was spectacular, but I was spent, having left most of my supply of wonder back in the caves, where everything, and not just one thing, was wonderful and weird, a world wholly different from the one we ordinarily inhabit, yet shockingly close, only a 90-minute ferry ride and a few kayak paddle strokes away.
4•1•1 Visit Paddle Sports of Santa Barbara at the Santa Barbara Harbor complex, online at kayaksb.com, or call 899-4925 for more information.