Exploring the Sea Caves of Santa Cruz Island

I’m perpetually surprised how many Santa Barbarans, even ones I’d think would be game, have never been to the Channel Islands. It’s hardcoded in me to want to go everywhere, but there’s something extra tantalizing about places I can see from a distance.

Adam and I had hiked on Santa Cruz Island in the past, so we were excited about the prospect of kayaking there. Nonetheless, it took us three years (shoulder injury, pandemic, fire, pier construction) to redeem the Santa Barbara Adventure Company gift certificate from my family. We signed up for the Adventure Sea Cave Kayak tour, which cost $169 per person, with an additional $63 per person for the round-trip ferry ride from Ventura Harbor.

When I asked what time of year would be ideal for kayaking, I was told July or August, because the air is warmer. (I’d avoid those months for hiking—too hot, little shade.) And they tell you what to wear and pack; the only items we had to buy beforehand were lanyards for our sunglasses, a dry bag for phones, and snacks and lunch.

We were booked on the 9 a.m. ferry, which meant arriving between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. (after which ferry operator Island Packers might give away your ticket). If you have strong feelings about where you want to sit on the boat—inside or out, or along the edge in case there’s wildlife—you’ll want to line up early. As you can see from the photo above, it’s a pretty enough spot to wait.

The ride itself is pleasant but long—an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half, depending on the wildlife. Having done the trip a few times, I wish there was an express option, because the sight of a dolphin just don’t thrill me much anymore. (On this outing, we stopped for sea lions, dolphins, and birds. During whale season, the trip can go on much longer.) If seasickness is a concern, the boat crew will tell you where best to sit. The outbound trip didn’t seem all that bouncy to me, and the return trip is evidently never as bad.

I took so many photos of the oil rigs that the passengers sitting near me probably thought I was an eco-terrorist.

We disembarked at Scorpion Anchorage, where we got a brief lecture about what not to do on the island—feed animals, remove anything, etc. Then we walked five minutes up the road to the outfitter’s area, where our affable guide, Pablo, gave us the option of wetsuits, splash jackets, and Crocs. I ended up just wearing a T-shirt, swimsuit, and my own Tevas, and I was totally fine. Back at the shoreline, Pablo quickly went through the basics of kayaking. I tend to loathe any orientation, but this one was painless.

I had been warned that were would be in a two-person kayak, which the company prefers because there’s less time waiting for your turn to enter a sea cave. But if I were to do this trip again—and no offense to my husband—I would try insisting on a single kayak. They’re simply more fun to maneuver. On the other hand, taking photos, particularly in the caves, was much easier knowing Adam could watch where we were drifting.

The kelp was impossibly beautiful, although occasionally challenging to paddle amid. And when you need to group together to learn about the birds or whatever, you can just grab a strand to moor yourself.

The kayaking lasts two and a half to three hours—first to the left and back, in case anyone wants to abort, and then to the right and back. The tour really is all about the caves. The number you get to explore depends on how high the water is. I think we did eight or nine, but honestly, I lost track. Some are so small we had to go one at a time, while others we all fit inside; some involved a U-turn, while others exited elsewhere. No matter the cave, the inside was always dark and cool.

My favorite cave felt like the entrance to a Bond villain’s lair.

So what’s not to like? Well, it’s a tour, so you’re with other people—in our case, that meant a few folks incapable of paddling a kayak. If money were no object, I’d book a private tour (assuming they’re available if you’re willing to pony up).

Second, due to National Park rules, the guides have to lead you into the water and out of it, so there’s no visiting the beautiful, empty beach you pass by, because it would take too long. Again, a private tour might solve that.

The paddling was generally very easy, which I’m not complaining about, although I wouldn’t have minded a bit more of a burn. Only the final leg, when the wind picked up against us, took real effort. I guess that was the good thing about not having lunch till 2 p.m.: hunger is a powerful motivator.

And last but not least, it’s a very long day—eleven hours door to door, what with the drives to and from Ventura, the wait at the marina, the roundtrip ferry ride, the orientation, the kayaking, and the sitting around for two hours after kayaking. (You could hike, swim, or snorkel, so that one’s on us.) I was surprised how exhausted I was, given how little exertion there was. 

But none of that should stop you from trying it. The trip was terrific and I wholeheartedly recommend it—I just think you might want to know what to expect going in.

P.S. If kayaking isn’t your thing, by all means consider hiking. The advice about the ferry is the same, and you may end up on the island longer than you’d like, so pack accordingly (sunblock, water, food, etc.).


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