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The Sea Caves of Santa Barbara

The Sea Caves of Santa Barbara

An untamed world of aquatic adventure awaits, just a short cruise away from the coast of one of California’s most vibrant and cultural cities. Dive in and explore the sea caves of the Channel Islands.

Bright skies and a cool breeze set the early morning scene as you are driven along the scenic coastal road towards Ventura Harbour. Rugged clay-coloured mountains rise to the left, made cinematic by the peppering of lush foliage and the dramatic pre-noon shadows. A seemingly endless horizon stretches out to your right, turquoise waves dancing and sparkling in the sun. You travel on between these two worlds, the spirit of adventure palpable.

Sea cave kayaking

Your ferry meets you at the harbour, and for the first time today you take to the waves, heading across the gulf towards Santa Cruz Island. With its towering coastal cliffs, the largest of California’s eight Channel Islands makes an awe-inspiring first impression. An expansive national park, the island offers a chimerical range of geology and ecology, from the vast mountain ranges and valleys to the verdant marshlands and golden sandy coasts. These eclectic ecosystems are home to a staggeringly diverse array of flora and fauna. Some, including the striking sapphire-plumed island scrub jay and the endangered slate-grey and tan Santa Cruz island fox, cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Moreover, the island has a rich cultural history, beginning over 10,000 years ago with the Native American settlements and leading through a pastoral period of ranching in the mid 19th-century. Today the entire expanse is uninhabited. As you disembark at Scorpion Ranch, it’s easy to feel like a pioneer, once again stepping out to explore a land barely touched by time. However today’s expedition promises an even greater sense of adventure, as you prepare to check out some of the island’s many sea caves.

You’ll be greeted by your friendly Channel Islands Outfitters’ guide, who will provide a brief of the day’s schedule and also kit you out with all the needed equipment, including wetsuit, helmet and lifejacket. Now fully prepared, you’ll take your kayak to the beach and follow your guide atop the waves. The geological makeup of the island, combined with its coastal location, have resulted in the tides creating many fascinating pockets just waiting to be discovered. Within moments of setting off from Scorpion Anchorage you’ll be needling through the subterranean wonderland.

The tour will vary depending on the conditions of the day, as cave height and accessibility can vary greatly depending on the tides and weather. Your guide is a local expert with an in-depth knowledge of the systems, who will make the judgement calls to ensure your day is truly unforgettable. Anticipate unique locations with evocative names such as Elephants Belly, Cavern Point and Scorpion Rock. Your guide is a trained naturalist, who will impart their knowledge of the cave’s fascinating geology, wildlife, cultural and natural history, plus the intricate ecology of the island’s kelp forest.

Sea cave kayaking

“I began my work at the Channel Islands National Park in 2002.” explains Garrett Kababik, CEO and Co-Founder of Channel Islands Outfitters. “Coming from a background in river guiding, I found the sea caves offer a unique sense of adventure and adrenaline. With modern cameras the scenery of these sea caves has been captured pretty well, but the sense you cannot capture is the pressure that occurs when the caves fill with seawater and then empty. The caves essentially breathe, just like we do, with air moving from high to low pressure. This, combined with the briny ionized air, makes visiting the caves in person a real requirement.”

The myriad of natural beauty and the thrill of exploration is always a hit with visitors, who often describe the experience as being more akin to a great theme park visit than your typical national park tour. Garrett enthuses, “Interacting with the ocean and its inhabitants each day is what keeps work interesting. Watching how people are affected by these interactions is what makes the work worthwhile.”

Back on dry land, lunch is served in the picturesque picnic area. Echoing the green commitments of the park, the menu today is all organic and lovingly prepared with locally-sourced ingredients. Then the late afternoon activity is up to you—Channel Island Outfitters can gear you up to snorkel through the kelp forests of the Marine Reserve, home to seals, bat rays and octopus. Alternatively, you can keep to dry land with a scenic hike along the island. Most recommended is the route to Cavern Point, an ascended bluff which affords truly stunning views of the island and the Channel beyond.

While this sounds like an action-packed and demanding day, Garrett explains that it’s actually an experience suitable for all ages and all levels of ability. “All of our adventures are ‘Challenge by Choice’, meaning we have something for everyone. Sea caves are optional, and we always have an alternative to entering them. If cave entry sounds scary, just paddling alongside the volcanic cliffs and enjoying the atmosphere of the island is worth it.”

Channel Island Outfitters can arrange a number of tours around the Channel Islands National Park, either privately or with a small group.

A Place to Unwind

Belmond El Encanto

Belmond El Encanto

After an eventful day on the island, an indulgent and rejuvenating stay awaits at Belmond El Encanto. A landmark hotel from the 1920s, the hotel is perfectly positioned in the hills above the city, with sweeping views down to Santa Barbara and the coast beyond. Not only will you have your own bungalow or suite to sink into, but our expert concierge will be more than happy to arrange your excursion with Channel Islands Outfitters and provide all transport to and from Ventura Harbour.

by Daniel Hayden