Exploring the Channel Islands National Park by Sea Kayak

By: Melissa Marsted + Save to a List

    For nearly twenty years I lived along California’s central coast, facing the Channel Islands. I had visited them a handful of times for trail running and one time to explore the infamous Painted Cave. My son and I decided a trip on board the Truth with the Santa Barbara Adventure Company would be the perfect ending to our week in Santa Barbara and to celebrate his birthday which had become a family tradition - an experience versus a material present.
    I had recently acquired a new found fascination for the national parks while trail running in my new home state of Utah with five national parks, the third highest amount after California’s nine and Alaska’s eight. I soon learned that 2016 would mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the national parks system, and I started writing a series of children’s books about the national parks which would include the Channel Islands National Park.

    The morning was foggy and cool for the two and half hour crossing from the Santa Barbara harbor, but at least relatively calm until we were out in the middle of the channel. Then other passengers found quiet reprieves in the bunk beds. My son and I read and wrote in the main cabin until it was time for us to meet with the guides and decide what to wear for our kayaking adventure. We soon found out that the company had reserved us a double kayak, meaning less exercise but more time together.

    With the kayaks launched, Matt and Hector, our two guides and 13 participants were ready for our adventure down the coast of Santa Cruz Island, one of the five islands that comprise the Channel Islands National Park. Seagulls, pelicans and oyster catchers were swooping and soaring above and around us and soon the adorable noses of harbor seals were popping up to take a look at us through beds of sea kelp.

    The fog was beginning to dissipate. I chose to wear a long sleeve top under the wetsuit that the company provided along with a hat under my helmet, instead of sunglasses. Neither of us had water shoes with us, but our Hoka running shoes were more than adequate. The guides offered some kayaking tips and were incredibly informative about the the history and flora and fauna of the islands. They truly seemed to love their jobs and were cheerful the entire journey. The positive energy for such young guides allowed an incredible cohesiveness among the group although we were never formally introduced to each other.

    We paddled at our own pace but within eye sight of our guides. Soon we were in front of the opening of the first sea cave. The coves were full of activity as more birds took off like mini sea planes with their little legs creating a drag in the water before take off. I especially loved the oyster catchers with their long orange beaks and their character trait to mate for life.

    It was time to enter our first cave. It was a bit daunting at first but then we were experiencing the echoes and knowing we were inside the natural homes of so many sea creatures, inside of looking through wire fencing as we might normally be accustomed to when visiting a zoo. Every sense of our body was exposed to the energy of nature at its best. I could feel my arm hairs twinkling with delight.

    For years, I thought the Painted Cave, one of the world’s largest sea caves was the one and only. We paddled into four sea caves, each with a different experience and was reminded of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, complete darkness only highlighted by our guides’ headlamps. Two of my favorites were named Sea Lion Surprise and Boomer. It was inside Boomer that our entire group of kayakers had our own private stage entirely performed by a cast of dozens barking sea lions, singing and dancing in chorus with an occasional solo. With the undulating waves that pushed us closer to the rock outcropping where they were staged, I feared we were invading their space, but relied on our guides for safety. The smells and sounds were magnified in the darkness of the cave. As we turned our kayaks to the opening of the cave, the light from the outside provided comfort.

    We paddled for nearly two hours until the piece de resistance, the Painted Cave, with a massive opening extending 35 feet high. It is named for the color variations of the lichen painted on the walls of the cliff as if nature painted its own modern art. The guides commented how lucky we were to have such calm seas as we paddled nearly a quarter of a mile into the depths of the cave. We stayed inside for a considerable amount of time, again so our senses were touched by nature’s wonders. It was truly a magical experience that compares to watching an ocean sunset or the first winter snowfall.

    My son and I were not ready for the kayaking to end. Sea kayaking is definitely a bucket list adventure. With the anchored Truth in sight, we paddled the long way back along the perimeter of the cove, hoping to spot a garibaldi or two swimming in the kelp beds. We were certain to remember our visit to the Channel Islands that would be the jumping off point for my future in writing children’s books about the national parks. I would also continue to seek new adventures for my family knowing the memories would last forever.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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