In the depths of a gaping sea cave, I struggled to keep my bow straight while trying to punch through the whitewater-choked exit. As I fought the wishy-washy conditions, an all-too-calm southern sea otter swam in front of me. On its back it barely put any effort into the turbulent surf. Not a care in the world, it ducked under two more waves before lifting its head, straining its neck to possibly see how I fared. When I burst through the last wave, it gave me one more look, appearing satisfied that I'd survived, before disappearing into the dark, cobalt blue ocean.

The Central California coastline offers a little bit of everything for a kayaker whether you're a beginner, intermediate or advanced.

Wildlife abounds in coves, hauled out and roosting on rock outcroppings and wave-battered cliffs. Blowholes, craggy archways, grottos and dense kelp forests await those looking to explore this ruggedly beautiful coast.

Here are three places that won't disappoint. They're easy to put-in, the wildlife is a guarantee and you'll come away wanting more. Each venue hosts kayaking concessionaires offering tours and rentals to these central coast gems.

Paddling in the Shadow of Hearst Castle

San Simeon Cove was a shimmering blue and green, as a baitball of fish sustained a flutter of gulls and dive-bombing brown pelicans. A pair of dolphins joined the mix, as we paddled on the fringe, while dodging the northwesterly winds within the protective cove. As we hugged the craggy bluffs of the cove, we eased up on our paddling to the tune of whistling pigeon guillemots tending to their cliffside nests, their hungry chicks demanding their morning feeding.

Suddenly, the calm was interrupted by a female southern sea otter and its rambunctious youngster. After straining her neck for a better look, they vanished in a splash in the nearby kelp forest. Other otters wrapped up in the canopy of the kelp forest paid us no bother, instead choosing to lounge the morning away.

Todd Potter owner and guide for Sea for Yourself Kayak Tours, gives talks on the water concerning kelp forests, the marine fauna and the history and mystic of Hearst Castle.

Once a whaling station in the 1880s, San Simeon Cove is now part of the Monterey National Marine Sanctuary. The historic castle hovers above the William Randolph Hearst State Beach. You'll find Sea for Yourself Kayak Tours on the beach running tours and renting kayaks daily. Call 805/927-1787,

Morro Bay Estuary

Sailing under the Spanish flag in 1542, explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo used massive Morro Rock as a navigational tool while exploring the California coastline, and you won't get lost in a kayak either. Whether you're paddling around the harbor amongst bull sea lions perched on anchored tugboats or by a raft of sea otters, or the serenity of the back bay and its maze of serpentine channels weaving through the pickleweed, the rock always looms on the horizon.

For nature enthusiasts, the estuary supports the most significant wetland system on California's south and central coasts. Over 250 bird species flock to the estuary with fall through spring being the optimum time for bird watching. White pelicans, raptors, shorebirds, gulls, herons and egrets are easily viewed from a kayak. Harbor seals enjoy the mudflats, but don't be surprised to see one splash next to your kayak.

You can lose yourself here as paddling can become tranquil, soothing, even healing. Just pick a channel (mind the tidal flow) and relax away the day in one of the central coast's many natural wonders.

Rentals and/or tours are available through Rock Kayaks. Call 805/772-2906,

Kayak Horizons, call 805/772-6444,

The Kayak Shack at State Park Marina Morro Bay, call 805/772-8796,

Paddling Playground

Enthusiasm bellows from the shore at Shell Beach. Vince Shay, one of the best kayak surfers in the world and a guide for Central Coast Kayaks, pumps out instructions to some newbies to kayaking from Wisconsin. “Paddle, paddle, paddle," he encourages, as the three vacationers furiously paddle their kayaks through kelp-choked waves. “Awesome! You guys are doing great!"

It's simple to see why he's so excitable about kayaking Shell Beach. This rugged, yet picturesque stretch of coast just north of Pismo Beach, is a virtual kayakers playground of gaping sea caves, arches and guano-covered rock outcroppings and pinnacles. It seemed like every rock outcropping was occupied with cormorants, guillemots, pelicans and harbor seals.

Shay led a throng of paddlers in yellow kayaks through a myriad of sea caves swollen in whitewater, somehow motivating first-timers to overcome any notion of fear inside a wave-battered grotto. Remnants of a south swell were evident as timing was everything, but Shay kept it fun and waited for waves to pour through. Before he knew it, his participants were joyfully crashing through waves as well.

Central Coast Kayaks leads tours daily. Call 805/773-3500,

Other contacts for the central coast: Good Clean Fun leads kayak tours. Call 805/995-1993,