(Alameda Magazine, July/August 2004)
Since the beginning of time, man has been fascinated with caves. Dark, dank and mysterious, they test the very depths of our imagination. But while man lived for centuries in caves on dry land, it’s sea caves that offer the real adventure. And no place in California has more sea caves than the Channel Islands.
First, a geography lesson. The Channel Islands are eight spits of land off the Southern California coast. They lie in a spot between the mainland and the deep ocean called the Continental Shelf. There’s an amazing array of wildlife and water so clear, Jacque Coustou once called it one of the best cold water diving spots on the planet. Oh, and something else. We own these islands. They’re part of the National Park system.
On a day when the fog was skirting the sun, I joined a group of kayakers on a trip to the closest island in the chain, Anacapa. We left out of Oxnard, about an hour north of Burbank and just below Santa Barbara. It’s a wonderful town that really needs a name change (remember the Johnny Carson jokes on the Tonight Show?) But that’s a story for another time.
The boat trip to Anacapa is not for the weak of stomach. Dramamine and a steady eye on the horizon helped me through the 90 minute excursion, which was more like a liquid roller coaster ride. But once we were in our kayaks, the waves were gentle and easy to ride.
Anacapa is a long, skinny spine of cliffs and caves that the Chumash called “Anyapakh”, or mirage. Our guide was most aptly named, Jimmy McWaters. “People have been hurt in these caves and you have to be careful,” he warned as we adjusted our helmets and paddled into a circle around him. He watched, intently, the swell of the sea. “If the tide is too high or low, you can get trapped,” he went on, adding that he had his own scrape with death in a sea cave. “I was trying to turn around and a swell came in and lifted my kayak up and I got wedged on the ceiling.” Perhaps too much information was coming our way.
But once I saw the treasure inside, I was convinced that the risk was worth it. A kaleidoscope of color encircled the walls, with sea stars of purple and magenta. Tiny crabs scurried along the dripping rocks. And something else was in there. I could see it on a ledge when Jimmy shined his flashlight. It was a Sea Lion with deep, dark eyes and whiskers like a broom. This was clearly his cave and his barking echoed off the cavern walls.
In and out of the sea caves we paddled, riding the tides and marveling at the marine life. If ever there were an amusement park for this sport, the Channel Islands would be it. Off Anacapa alone, there are more than 120 sea caves. Some are big, with wide open entries. Some are tiny, barely allowing a kayaker to enter before being spit back out with the tide. Guides have names for caves like these. Names like Room of Doom and Flatliner. The novice kayaker may want to sit these caves out. But then there are places like Painted Cave off Santa Cruz island. One of the world’s largest sea caves, it’s big enough to house a blimp. In fact, Santa Cruz has over 150 caves on its front side alone. It’s the biggest of the Channel Islands and is thought to be a miniature of what Southern California looked like more than a century ago.
On longer trips you can beach your kayak and hike the trails on several of the islands. Snorkeling is also a popular sport. And if all this doesn’t do it for you – there’s always sex. With waters so clear, you can see the male Garibaldis luring the ladies into their kelp dens. When the passion has ended, the females take off – leaving the men to raise the minnows. It’s a show that goes on daily in the Channel Islands chain.
For more information on Channel Islands National Park, call 805-658-5730 or log on to http://www.nps.gov/chis.