Friday, November 16 , 2018, 10:48 am | Fair 67º


Hop Aboard a Paddleboard or Kayak for the Ultimate Cave Adventure

Water adventurers head to the western end of Santa Cruz Island to tour the depths of darkness

Standup paddle and kayak cave exploration: How cool does that sound? It’s even cooler to get out and do it, and 15 adventurous souls recently had such an opportunity.

Organizing a group of like-minded friends to load gear and head to Santa Cruz Island aboard the vessel Truth was easy once everyone knew the objective: get dropped off near the western end of Santa Cruz Island and paddle our way downwind, poking our collective group of various standup paddleboards and kayaks into an amazing array of caves and mini coves along the beautiful island shoreline.

One highlight of the adventure included a paddle as deep as one dared into the famous Painted Cave, apparently the world’s longest sea cave (at least a quarter-mile long).

Looking rather inviting at its prominent entrance with a 160-foot-tall cathedral-like opening, Painted Cave gets its name from the colorful displays of lichens, algae, succulents and mineral streaks scattered around the eroded rock opening. But paddling back into its depths requires a little bit of nerve. So, being a relatively calm day out on the Santa Barbara Channel with minimal wind and swell activity, one by one our brave group of paddlers ventured into the dark of the cave.

Before some people turned on their flashlights — which did little good as the darkness totally ate up the light — I got the sensation as I paddled deeper that the walls were closing in with a pitch-black darkness that consumes everything. To calm my nerves, I quietly started humming to myself the theme song from Pirates of the Caribbean: “Yo-ho yo-ho a pirate’s life for me,” with a long emphasis on the “yo-ho.”

That didn’t work for long, so turning around while there was still room to maneuver, I almost bumped into someone while I concentrated on the little speck of sunlight way back at the cave’s opening. Slowly paddling back out as noise from the barking sea lions faded away from within the farthest reaches of the cave, I kept half expecting to see some Harry Potter-like lake creature rise up and engulf my board, scaring the you-know-what out of me.

The experience of going that deep into the darkness of Painted Cave definitely creeped me out, but it was eerily exciting at the same time — a score of 10 on my adventure scale.

Our group eventually made its final way downwind to the Truth, which was anchored in another perfect little cove. Over a late lunch of barbecued burgers, we compared notes about how much fun our paddling adventure had been. Several families enjoyed the opportunity to paddle double kayaks with their kids and share the delights of exploration and nature viewing in a pristine marine environment. The standup paddlers thought they had the advantage, though, as the extra height allowed them to peer down into the water much better, offering almost a glass-bottom boat experience. At the same time, they paid the price of constantly trying to balance without falling into the water, which did happen to a few people.

The final verdicts? Kayaking was definitely more relaxing, while standup paddling provided more of a workout. Both were perfect compliments to the overall adventure.

Paddleboarders and kayakers prepare to leave their vessel, Truth, and sail the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island to Painted Cave.
Paddleboarders and kayakers prepare to leave their vessel, Truth, and sail the shoreline of Santa Cruz Island to Painted Cave. (Lori Rafferty / Noozhawk photo)

So, whatever your choice of watercraft to intimately explore the cave-dotted shoreline of northern Santa Cruz Island, or any other northern Channel Island for that matter, grab a group of friends and stow your gear on the Truth — because sometimes it’s best in your own backyard.

Click here to contact Truth Aquatics for transportation and boat support. Kayaks and paddles are available for rent. Get a group of friends and family and charter the whole boat for day trips to explore the Painted Cave area or go for the ultimate three- to four-day island adventure.

Bring your own standup paddleboard equipment (stored in protected board and paddle bags) or kayak gear, swimwear, wetsuit, booties or other aquatic footwear, towel, hat, sunglasses, sunblock, a change of clothes and a healthy sense of adventure and fun. The trip is not recommended for beginner paddlers.

Local standup paddle shops (gear and some rental)

» Stand Up Paddle Sports:

» Blueline Stand Up Paddle Surf:

» Paddle Sports of Santa Barbara:

Local kayak companies (gear, rental and guided tours)

» Santa Barbara Adventure Co.:

» Paddle Sports of Santa Barbara:

— Photojournalist Lori Rafferty shows her appreciation for Santa Barbara by pursuing her love of water sports, the backcountry and all things in between. She is also a volunteer wilderness ranger with Los Padres National Forest.

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