Sea cave kayaking in the Pacific Ocean is an exhilarating ride

Maneuvering through a sea cave at low tide, our double kayak propelled straight toward a good-sized rock. In the front position with little control, I gasped and unconsciously closed my eyes, bracing for impact and a tip into the chilly Pacific Ocean.

When I opened my eyes seconds later, I saw our kayaking guide watching from in front of us, an agape look on his face, surely matching mine as we both wondered how Greg and I had come through the rock-filled cave unscathed and still afloat. I credit our success to a perfectly-timed incoming wave that lifted our kayak and carried us over the impending rock.

Sea cave kayaking off Santa Cruz Island, one of the eight islands of Channel Islands National Park off the southern coast of California, was an amazing way to wrap up our 2021 kayaking season. In September, we kayaked in the Atlantic Ocean during our family vacation to Acadia National Park in Maine. And in October, trying to use up some airline tickets from 2020, Greg and I traveled to the opposite side of the U.S. to California and the Pacific Ocean, exploring Joshua Tree National Park on Friday and Channel Islands National Park on Saturday.

We left for Santa Cruz Island via ferry from Ventura. About halfway to the island, our captain slowed down the ferry as he identified a large pod of dolphins diving and swimming alongside us. He estimated we were surrounded by about a thousand dolphins.

He then came to a full stop and pointed out two humpback whales. Everybody on the boat watched the water in anticipation, and we were rewarded when the whales exhaled air from their blowholes and then flipped their tales as they went back down deeper into the water.

When we got to Santa Cruz Island, those of us going kayaking walked back to the Channel Islands Adventure Company’s camp, where we proceeded to put on wetsuits, waterproof jackets, portable flotation devices and helmets.

Once geared up, we walked back to the beach where we introduced ourselves and shared where we were from and our level of paddling experience. Our guide, Dustin, provided a brief paddling lesson and demonstrated how to enter the kayak and, most importantly, how to get back into a kayak on the water if tipped out.

We carried our kayaks to the water, where Greg and I were first in our kayaks and pushed off into the Pacific Ocean. Paddling basics are the same wherever we kayak, but being on the ocean feels a lot different than kayaking in the lakes and rivers around Wisconsin. I felt so small in such a large, seemingly-endless body of water.

The day was overcast with a soft breeze, and while it would have been nice to see the sun, we had no complaints about the calm water. Only if you got too close to the rocky shoreline did it seem dangerous as the waves crashed loudly against the land. The crashing waves also made it loud in the caves.

Before we entered each cave, Dustin told us what to expect and how to best maneuver through it. In some, we had to stick to a specific side so as not to hit our heads on low-hanging rocks. Others, we had to make quick, sharp turns.

In one cave, we shared the quiet pool of water with a lone seal. In between caves, we saw groups of sea lions floating together in a circle. The water was so clear that we could see fish swimming below us, including the bright orange California state fish, the garibaldi. We saw pelicans resting on the rocks, and we even saw a bald eagle, one of only 12 on the island.

About halfway through our three-hour adventure, we stopped to float and have a snack. Both Greg and I sampled some kelp that we pulled from the water. Dustin told us which part of the plant tasted the best. It wasn’t bad, but I definitely preferred my peanut-butter chocolate Kind bar!

After the last cave—which took my breath away as I feared capsizing against the rock, I was content to paddle in the open water around Scorpion Island and listen to Dustin share the history of the Channel Islands and its wildlife.

Dustin told us about the wild pigs, which were all caught and removed from the island, and the golden eagles that used to prey on the island foxes. The golden eagles were replaced by bald eagles, which feed on fish. With no predators on the island, the foxes are now abundant and, as we later witnessed, not afraid of the human visitors who come to the island each day.

Once back on shore, Greg and I hiked the Cavern Point Loop, which took us up to a high point on the island with spectacular views. We saw 5-6 island foxes that were on the trail with us or checking out the picnic tables and beach for scraps of food.

On the ferry ride back to Ventura, we again saw a large pod of dolphins as well as three humpback whales. The entire day was all we could have hoped for!

Our quest to visit all 60-plus national parks has taken us to unique destinations we otherwise would never have thought of for a vacation. It’s a fantastic way to see our beautiful country. And combining our love of national parks and kayaking has provided unique perspectives of the terrain and added more adventure along the way. Thirty-four parks down, 29 to go!

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