Guide Ryan Boutcher demonstrates how to use the paddle with Quail Rock in the background
Emily Einolander

The gullet of the cave goes completely black, and the throaty yelps of hundreds of unseen creatures echo from within. We line up behind Kenji, our guide, paddling through the glassy water, until we turn the corner and everything goes pitch black. I try not to think of the crawlers from the 2005 film The Descent as we shine our flashlights toward the cave wall to our left. That’s when we see that the wall is covered with barking sea lions — adults and pups alike — sliding in and out of the water.

It’s amazing how far we residents of Santa Barbara County travel to see natural wonders when this incredible sight is only a two-hour boat ride away.

Santa Cruz Island’s Painted Cave is one of the biggest sea caves on the planet. Its mouth is 160 feet high and reaches back almost a quarter of a mile. Today, conditions are close to perfect, with almost no swell and very low winds. Because we don’t have to worry about a swell suddenly carrying our boat into a rock wall, the captain is able to drive our boat halfway into the cave and out again before anchoring.

Painted Cave
Emily Einolander

Santa Barbara Adventure Company leads kayak tours to Painted Cave about 12 times per year. The charter boat drops anchor at Quail Rock on the west side of Santa Cruz Island. Unlike other kayak tours that launch from the beach on the east side, adventurers on the Painted Cave trip get straight off the boat and into the kayak. Then, about 30 guests spend three hours paddling into several of the 300 sea caves that Santa Cruz offers.

“So many cities are the same,” says Karen, a visitor from the Bay Area. “The most fascinating place you can go that makes one place different from another is a national park.”

Santa Cruz Island is part of Channel Islands National Park and is surrounded by a national marine sanctuary. It is one of the least-visited, hardest-to-access national parks. However, when early-20th-century ecologists began to compile a list of possible national parks, the Channel Islands were in the top five. Visitors can see rich marine wildlife and a wide variety of island birds such as oystercatchers, peregrine falcons, pigeon guillemots, and even bald eagles. Tour guides express a passion for the island and a respect for the integral balance of plant and animal species.

“We’re in a unique area in the country where we’ve saved this ecosystem,” says adventure guide Ryan Boutcher. “People who come get a glimpse into how California looked without people.”

People of all ability levels will be accommodated on kayak tours, including those with special needs, so that as many people as possible can see what the island has to offer. Three hours of paddling definitely leaves one with sore triceps — but the awe-inspiring experience makes the workout well worth it.

To book your own trip, see


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