asing my kayak into a toothy grotto on the Channel Islands
National Park, my attention was quickly diverted by a rambunctious
pair of California sea lions looping back and forth near the
entrance of a gaping volcanic sea cave. From the water, two
young males were frantically herding a small school of silverfish
into a shallow crevice for a hardy feast: nature’s fury on
display at the craggy archipelago.
Whether you’re relaxing on Butterfly Beach, nearby
Miramar, or straddling a gritty sandstone slab at the top
of Montecito Peak, you can’t miss the islands of Anacapa,
Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa or San Miguel on the other side of
the Santa Barbara Channel. The unique chain is commonly
referred to as “the Galapagos Islands of the north” due to its
rich biodiversity found nowhere else on earth.
One of the best ways to explore this beginner-friendly
environment of tranquil coves, knobby rocky spires and
hordes of sea caves honeycombed in the volcanic cliffs of
Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands is by paddling a kayak.
Spelunking the sea caves is a kayaker’s playground,
nesting habitat for seafaring birds and potential haul-
outs for thousands of harbor seals and sea lions. With
over 200 sea caves to choose from, the Channel Islands
possess more caverns than anywhere else in the world.
Created by powerful waves and winds these erosional
features are still evolving today.
There was no mistaking the girth of Painted
Cave. From my kayak it felt as if there were some
gravitational pull drawing me inside its dark depths.
The further I paddled in, the darker it became. By the
time I had reached the third chamber I couldn’t see
my hand in front of my face, so I flipped my headlamp
on. That’s when all the commotion began.
Arguably the largest sea cave in the world, Painted Cave
photos and story by Chuck Graham
The Galapagos of the North