By Chuck Graham
A Canoe & Kayak Web Exclusive
I scanned the brittle, pock-marked walls of a dark sea cave within Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands off the west coast of California. The caves harbor pelagic cormorants and pigeon guillemots where they roost comfortably in the damp alcoves.
Bird-watching in the caves is not without it’s hazards, especially when you are under birds…if you know what I mean. Fortunately, I was wearing my helmet when a cormorant landed on a narrow crevice, dislodging a volcanic pebble. The sea serpent-like seabird hunkered down oblivious to the nugget bouncing off the top of my helmet.
There’s 255 documented sea caves within Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands, and
many more await discovery on the rugged northern isles. Some are deep, gaping caverns,large enough to drive a boat into. Others, the ceilings hang so low you have to lie flat on your back in the seat of your kayak, performing an aquatic limbo. Still, others are mere fissures slitting the islands’ craggy face, where the deeper you go your paddle scrapes on the moist innards of the island.
While circumnavigating the Santa Cruz, largest island in the Channel Islands archipelago, I knew as I rounded West Point and paddled downcoast, the sea caves would open up for me. The first one I encountered is the largest, the best and most remote. Painted Cave lives large and it’s gaping depths will allow a 60-foot vessel to ease into its first chamber. Piercing 1200 feet into Santa Cruz, it reaches a dead-end at a cobble beach just broad enough for a raucous contingent of sea lions to haul out on.
Once inside Painted Cave’s second chamber, I heard the deep bellows of the pinnipeds. It sounded like a sea monster was announcing its presence within its lair, warning me to stay clear. Visibility deteriorated the further I paddled in. After awhile I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, and the sea lion’s barks became deafening. When the dominant bulls left their beach and charged toward my 14-foot boat, I knew it was time to turn around and head for the light at the end of the tunnel. Like torpedoes cutting through the ink-black water, the pinnipeds raced me out of Painted Cave, their bellows echoing in the impending light.
Outside the caverns, other hazards lay in wait. Submerged rock outcroppings played peek-a-boo with the surging swells and swirling currents.
A two hour paddle southeast down Santa Cruz’s coast takes you to Fry’s Cove. The cove is lined with 300 to 500 foot cliffs honeycombed with cracks, caves and tranquil coves for paddling adventure. More exposed then the southeast end of Santa Cruz island, predominant northwest winds and swell made exploring caves in this region of Santa Cruz challenging.
Outside the caverns, other hazards lied in wait. Submerged rock outcroppings played peek-a-boo with the surging swells and swirling currents. Once exposed, a barnacle-encrusted rock could leavemy kayak teetering uncontrollably on top of a rock or pinned underneath one of these sharp unforgiving pillars.
After the excitement of dodging rocks , tranquility awaited inside the modest sea cave on the western edge of Fry’s Cove. At high noon this triangular opening resembled a indoor swimming pool with lights glowing underwater. The sun’s reflection transformed the cobalt blue water to a tropical turquoise.
This region of the island looks like it belongs in the Pacific Northwest. Pine and oak trees swayed over the coast and its cobbled beaches. A juvenile bald eagle hovered above me from its craggy perch. Young, sleek and playful sea lions jostled with each other on the starboard side of my boat. One even bumped the hull, resonating a dull thud throughout my kayak.
Located at the southeast edge of Santa Cruz Island, Scorpion Anchorage harbors a myriad of caves, tunnels and holes that are forgiving for beginners and intriguing enough for experts.
Names like Flatliners, Elephant Arch, Dogleg and Boatwreck are found on a map provided by the NPS for paddlers to follow. Other grottos like Bat Cave and caves #3 and #4 within Cavern Point Cove remain closed to paddlers to protect nesting ashy storm-petrels and Xantus’s murrelets.
Bat Cave hosts the largest nesting colony in the world for the rare ashy storm-petrel, with over 100 nests tucked away in its dark depths.
Paddling within the bowels of nearby Scorpion Rock, I scraped my paddle against its dank walls, while hundreds of brown pelicans, western gulls, cormorant and black oystercatchers sunned themselves outside, perched on its guano-caked shell.
One mile west to Cavern Point Cave, I paddled into its broad entrance which reminded me of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Blowholes on either side of the main grotto sounded like canon blasts penetrating a battered fortress. The entrance of the cave faces northwest, so the larger the swell, the louder the blowholes are. Swells splashing back and forth up the slippery volcanic walls kept me teetering in my kayak while paddling 150 feet inside its soggy mouth. When winter swells get too big, waves engulf the entrance and paddling into this particular grotto isn’t a option.
Wind and waves continually mold and shape the sea caves of the Channel Islands rising out of the Pacific Ocean on California coast. The sea caves sculpted by eons of wind and waves offer an amazing unique paddling opportunity of adventure and challenge.
For guided trips contact the Channel Islands Kayak Center at (805) 984-5995.
To see more of Chuck Graham’s photography of the Channel Islands go to www.chuckgrahamphoto.com.