FRIENDLY FLOTILLA: With only a few guests per knowledgeable guide, it's easy to learn about Channel Island wildlife and history

It’s one thing to explore the surface of an island. It’s something entirely different to delve inside it.

And while that may sound like an impossibly crazy task for the average person — to venture inside a dark, craggy sea cave perched alone in a plastic kayak — the folks at Santa Barbara Adventure Company make the once-in-a-lifetime trip pure, safe fun.

Offering Central Coast residents and visitors the chance to take part in virtually any outdoor activity under the sun — from horseback riding to surfing, to paragliding, to rock-climbing — Santa Barbara Adventure Company is one of those rare organizations that takes out thousands of clients a year but, when it’s your turn, makes you feel like you’re its only charge.

Peering into Painted Cave

This summer, the company, which has been around since 1998 and boasts a roster of the most outdoorsy guys and gals you’ve ever met, is offering guided sea kayak tours of Santa Cruz Island’s world-famous sea caves, including the awe-inspiring Painted Cave.

Carved into the northwest coast of the island, Painted Cave gets its name from the swaths of colorful rocks and plants that line its walls. As you paddle inside it — foregoing the sunlight and wind that sweeps across the open ocean for the soot-black, moist air that’s penetrated by the sound of booming surf and barking sea lions — the cavern takes on a mystifying, cathedral-like quality that’s hard to forget.

With an entrance that gapes 160 feet into the sheer cliff face, and stretching nearly a quarter-mile into the island’s belly, the cave would be enough of a destination just on its own. But the excursion also includes forays into smaller caverns and secluded coves surrounded by dramatic rock formations and volcanic boulders.

There's no previous experience necessary to skirt the island, and people get to choose between single and double kayaks.
Tyler Hayden

In some of these inlets, patrolled by sentinel harbor seals that constantly poke their whiskered faces out of the waves for curiosity’s sake, the ocean is so clear that you can see straight to the bottom: Between the rock holds of giant kelp fronds, and among thorny sea urchins, bright orange Garibaldi joust for territory. If you’re lucky enough to paddle about during low tide — dodging the occasional basketball-sized jellyfish — purple and turquoise sea stars can be glimpsed, swollen with their mussel lunches.

The trip takes a full day, but all participants really have to worry about is showing up to Santa Barbara Harbor on the given morning; almost everything else is taken care of including kayaks, helmets, splash jackets, and so on. (Staff members provide guests with directions and a handy list of things to bring well beforehand.) And while the boat ride takes two-and-a-half hours both ways, the commute is actually a perk: Humpback whales are not an uncommon sight in the channel this time of year and dolphins constantly play tag with the boat, zipping in front of and under the bow.

Santa Barbara Adventure Company's guided tour of Painted Cave and other Santa Cruz Island sea caverns

As breakfast is served up for all aboard, and the chartered Truth chugs into the open Pacific, you can’t help but get a bit tingly with anticipation for the day ahead. Because even though the Channel Islands are right in our blue backyard, the opportunities for most people to experience them in such a raw, intimate way are few and far between. So, if you can, bring along a waterproof camera.


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