Essential Paddling Guide: Sea Kayaks And Sea Caves Of Channel Islands National Park
Editor's note: This is a special advertiser-supported article from the Essential Guide to Paddling The Parks.
Five islands, an east-west ranging chain that draws your eye into the Pacific sunset, long have lured the curious, industrious, and adventurous. Native peoples found the Channel Islands between 15,000-20,000 years ago, Spanish explorers landed here in the mid-1500s, and abalone harvesters and sheep and cattle ranchers arrived roughly 300 years later. Ever since, people have been leaving the California mainland to head out to sea for the islands—Anacapa, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel—and their unique, remote setting and unusual fauna that have given them the tag of “Galapagos of the North.”
Today most are adventurers who find a throw-back of sorts at Channel Islands National Park and National Marine Sanctuary, a rugged landscape that protects the islands and their nearly 250,000 acres of bluffs, rocky shorelines, scrub, chaparral and grasslands that offer a primitive experience for hikers and campers. No lodges, no stores. Just winds, sea spray, and tent sites.
And the water, which attracts most. Beneath the Pacific’s blue surface around the islands rise towering “forests” of kelp and rich beds of sea grass that offer habitat for more than 1,000 species of marine life. It’s into these waters that Channel Islands Outfitters paddles year-round, to both explore sea caves that time and waves have gouged into the islands’ foundations and to enable you to slip beneath the surface with mask and snorkel to take a closer look at this unusual seascape.
“It’s probably the most bio-diverse (national) park that we have. They call it the ‘Galapagos of the North’ for all the right reasons,” says Fraser Kersey, a co-founder of the company that has been guiding the curious and adventurous around the islands for two decades.
“There are 150 species found nowhere else on Earth that are in the Channel Islands, and the history is really fascinating, from the native Chumash people through the Spanish days and the ranching days. And how it’s all kind of evolved is absolutely fascinating. Going out there is like going back 200 years in California history.”
Bald eagles wheel in the skies over the islands, rare island foxes romp the grasslands, and California Common Murres have been spotted nesting on 100-foot-tall cliffs within the park.
This rich natural and cultural history, as well as the land- and seascapes, make Channel Islands National Park unique among the National Park System’s paddling destinations. While you’re not likely to paddle to the islands from the mainland—that sea crossing is best left to ferries—once you reach the islands Kersey or one of his guides will show you the jewels of the park.
The outfitter’s most popular tour is the two-and-a-half hour kayaking paddle that takes you into some of the largest sea caves in the world and explores grottos with names like the “Green Room” and “Neptune’s Trident.” And if you want to explore the longest sea cave in the world, Painted Cave, a tunnel that worms its way nearly a quarter-mile into the basement of Santa Cruz Island, they have a more advanced trip to this destination departing from Santa Barbara Harbor.
“There are more than 200 navigable caves on Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands, which is our primary zone for kayaking,” explains Kersey. “Some are tall, some are short, some are wide, some are really deep, and some are really shallow. Each one is totally unique. Some are just quick in and outs, some you can actually get into and you can have it pitch black in those caves. So there really are a large variety that we send people through.”
Growing in popularity are the company’s snorkeling trips, which allow you to spend about an hour exploring the kelp forests and their inhabitants. An early morning adventure for campers uses kayaks to get you to various areas for snorkeling, while wetsuits, complete with hoods and booties, help ward off the waters’ chill.
Channel Islands Outfitters operates almost exclusively in “Marine Protection Areas” (MPAs) that are essentially protected marine reserves where all life is protected from hunting and gathering, thus making wildlife encounters abundant and unadulterated.
Naturally, the question of sharks comes up often among Kersey’s clients, and with good reason. One of the largest sea lion rookeries in the world is found on San Miguel Island, and where there’s prey, there are predators.
“The way sharks migrate through Southern California is they come down through the Farallon Islands near San Francisco, past Point Conception, out to San Miguel and down to Baja,” he says.
“They definitely exist out here. There are tons of different sharks, leopard sharks, horn sharks. Everybody is scared of a white shark pretty much. “They exist. Every now and again we’ll see a juvenile in the channel, but I personally have paddled 200 days a year for the past 10 or 20 years and I’ve never seen (an adult great white). So I try to tell people it’s their natural environment, they do exist out there, but they’re so rare that it would be pretty exciting to see one.”
While Channel Islands Outfitters doesn’t offer any whale-watching specific kayak tours, you’ll very likely spot some whales while making the hourlong ferry crossing. Orcas are frequently spotted, as are dolphins and sea lions.
To help keep the islands’ environment healthy and flourishing as it has, Channel Islands Outfitters watches its carbon footprint and gives back. Last year, for instance, “we offset all of our carbon. Everybody’s trip that went out there was carbon neutral,” says Kersey. The company also is certified as a Certified For-Benefit Corporation for its business practices, and supports programs to get youth into the outdoors through 1% For The Planet.