By Greg Aragon
Thirty feet beneath my kayak, a school of bright orange Garibaldi swam past a reef of purple sea anemones. Beside me, a shiny black seal basked in the sun on a large rock island and appeared uninterested.
Standing guard on a crag 100 feet above this tranquil aquarium, a garrison of curious pelicans studied every move, while rock formations, sea caves, rugged valleys and green pastures provided a backdrop reminiscent of a pirate movie.
A friend and I were kayaking around Santa Cruz Island, and though we were only about 20 miles off the coast of Ventura, Calif., it seemed like I was a million miles from civilization, in a different world.
Our adventure began recently when we rented a couple kayaks for the day from Channel Island Kayak Center, located at Ventura Harbor. We then boarded a 64-foot-long Island Packers’ catamaran boat to Santa Cruz. We had to first make sure the boat had room for our kayaks by calling ahead and reserving space. Lasting roughly 80 minutes, the voyage to the island was highlighted by playful dolphins swimming alongside and jumping with joy over our presence.
We soon arrived at Prisoners Harbor, about 10 miles west of Scorpion anchorage. This area of the island offers private and spectacular views of the island and abundant sea life. The company likes this portion of the island for its seclusion and beauty as well as the opportunity for many unique animal sightings.
Santa Cruz covers 96-square-miles, with 77 miles of pristine coastlines ranging from sheer 200-foot cliffs to beautiful sandy beaches. It is part of Channel Islands National Park, one of North America’s most magnificent treasures. The park encompasses five of the eight California Channel Islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara) and their ocean environment.
The park bridges two biogeographical provinces “and in a remarkably small place, harbors the biologic diversity of nearly 2,500 miles of the North American coast.” The Channel Islands are home to over 2,000 plant and animal species, of which 145 are found nowhere else in the world. Like the Galapagos Islands of South America, isolation has allowed evolution to proceed independently on the islands. Marine life ranges from microscopic plankton to the blue whale. Archeological and cultural resources span a period of more than 13,000 years of human habitation.
After disembarking, we hauled our kayaks off the boat then strapped on helmets and water vests and slowly entered the water in our red kayaks. The first thing that struck me was the clearness of the water. Looking down was like looking into a fish bowl full of rocks, kelp forests and colorful fish. This is one reason why legendary sea explorer Jacques Cousteau considered the Channel Islands a top-ten world dive site.
About 20 minutes into our paddle, we came to our first cave. Dark, inviting and carved into the side of a 150-foot rock wall, the opening echoed with splashing waves and emitted cool, circulated air. We had to investigate. With a few careful maneuvers, we formed a single-file line and inched in, waiting for the waves to exit the cave before entering to avoid hitting our heads on the cave ceiling.
Our second cave was big enough to accommodate a large fishing boat. Upon entering, we were startled by loud, high-pitched clapping sounds shooting from the darkness. Our minds were eased when we discovered a nearby seal furiously slapping the water, attempting to stun his lunch – or scare us away!
At the cave’s end, we saw a smaller crevice hidden in complete darkness but we were too afraid to explore. Back outside, we paddled past a sailboat, a sea lion, a few bobbing lobster traps, the wreckage of an old ship and a narrow rock arch known as Marge Simpson because of its resemblance to the TV character’s towers hairdo.
For more information on getting to Santa Cruz Island or other Channel Islands, contact Island Packers at islandpackers.com or call (805) 642-1393; for more info on renting a kayak, contact Channel Island Kayak Center at cikayak.com or (805) 984-5995. Guided kayaking tours with expert guides are also available through the Santa Barbara Adventure company.