“It’s getting pretty swelly in here!”
The voice echoed out from deep inside Santa Cruz Island’s dank Kelp Trap Cave. The tide was on its way up, winds were high, and guides Erin Feinblatt and Landon Smith were the men to scope the scene. Kelp Trap Cave was the third and penultimate cave we would enter on our kayak day trip with Santa Barbara Adventure Company to Painted Cave.
Stretching 1,227 feet inward from its 100 foot-wide, 160 foot-tall entrance, Painted Cave is the second longest sea cave in the world, after Sea Lion Cave in Oregon. Named for its colorful rock types, mineral deposits, algae, and lichens, the cave’s walls are smatterings of vibrant greens, yellows, purples, and oranges. Swallows nests cake the entrance walls, adding shades of black and brown to the mix. (As it turns out, the U.S. West Coast is home to 55 of the 93 biggest sea caves in the world. Thirty-eight are in Channel Islands National Park, and 21 are on Santa Cruz Island, making it the world’s most porous island).
So when we entered Painted Cave earlier that morning, the fact it was “swelly” was not the challenge. The vast area was room enough for Feinblatt and Smith’s group of six kayaking clients. More daunting were the ominous groans and barks resonating from deep within the dark, noisome depths of Painted Cave. “Just give them a little space,” warned Smith when the sea lions — not to be confused with harbor seals, their smaller, more amiable and curious counterparts, who greeted us at the entrance — let us know that their territorial instincts were kicking in.
“People enter here probably around twice a week in the summer,” estimated Smith. “So they’re definitely at least startled every time.” Armed only with headlamps and paddles, we tried to be respectful.
The trip out to Painted Cave was a one-day endeavor aboard Truth, the namesake boat of Truth Aquatics. Built in 1973 and 65 feet long, Truth is the oldest and smallest of the company’s fleet, which also includes Conception and Vision. All three call Santa Barbara Harbor home but spend the better part of their summers at sea. The day’s passengers included Truth’s six-man crew, guides Feinblatt and Smith from Santa Barbara Adventure Company, their kayaking disciples (myself included), a couple of independent SCUBA divers, and a few voyagers along simply for the ride, which includes whale watching and dolphin spotting.
For the Truth crew as well as Feinblatt and Smith, sea gigs seem to be just another rung on the adventure ladders of life. Feinblatt is a part-time guide; he’s also a bird enthusiast and professional photographer whose work (erinfeinblatt.com) includes, but is not limited to, Channel Island wildlife shot both above and below the water line.
Smith, an adventure guide of 10 years, made the commitment to a life outdoors when he majored in Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration at Cal Poly. His personal motto explains everything: “Live it, protect it, explore it.” Though he’s been with SBACO for only four months, he’s been sailing out to the islands for years.
And then there’s Truth deckhand KG Fairbarn, a bona fide “sea nomad” with the shark and octopus tattoos to prove it. He’s worked on Truth Aquatics boats between bike tours along the West Coast of North America and New Zealand, and geography studies and research diving expeditions at UCSB. Along with two other crew members, he currently calls Truth’s top story cabin home.
Captain Davey Woodland, the first commander of Truth, has worked on Truth Aquatics boats since 1989, but just returned from living in Seattle for six years. And then there’s Henry, the 13-year-old diver who has dedicated his summer to learning the tricks of the trade. “He’ll hopefully burn up a lot of his summer with us,” said Captain Woodland when Henry helped kayakers back onto the boat after our cave-exploring expedition.
While SBACO guides and the Truth crew hardly lack experience, they manage to treat every patron aboard with the patience and attention I imagine they must apply to all dives of life. They build respect-based relationships with clients that foster disaster-free adventures that everybody seems to enjoy.
For instance, a warning about sharp mussels and barnacles that line cave walls is more than just a lecture about avoiding cut up hands. It’s a lesson about gooseneck barnacles, which feature bright red suction cups, and are considered a delicacy in Portuguese and Spanish cuisine (known as “percebes”), perhaps because it’s so difficult to harvest them from the partially submerged sea walls rich enough in oxygen from the constant pounding of rough waves for them to grow.
They also explained that the tiny jellyfish saturating the water around Santa Cruz Island’s northwest coast were harmless. “They’re just spawning like crazy ‘cause the water’s so warm,” explained a crewmember. According to Fairbarn, at close to 70 degrees, the water around the island is “downright tropical” this summer. It remained in the low 60s through the end of last year’s summer.
A day trip to Painted Cave typically entails much more than the title denotes — we also entered Little Painted Cave, Kelp Trap Cave, and Sharks Tooth Cave (so-called because of the shark tooth-shaped rock hanging from its dark ceiling), and had the opportunity to snorkel about the kelp beds.
And while the Truth has a busy itinerary through the rest of the summer — Fairbarn explained that when it’s not on one- to four-day kayak and dive trips, it takes research groups on expeditions like the one that embarked this Thursday and will return at the end of the month after stalking migrating whales throughout the Channel — plenty of time remains this summer to explore the uncharacteristically warm waters of Channel Islands National Park.
For more details on SBACO’s remaining summer adventures, visit sbadventureco.com, and to see what Truth and her two big sisters are up to, visit truthaquatics.com.