Kayaking In Spirit of The Past: Santa Cruz Island Sea Caves
by Katie Rogers


As an Anthropology major, much of my undergraduate career has been occupied with studies of the Chumash, a Native American people who have deep roots in the Santa Barbara Channel area and have inhabited the southern California coast for millennia. I am consistently awed by the accomplishments of the Chumash—their sacred rock paintings, their delicate shell bead money, their uncanny ability to obtain subsistence from the ocean. But I am most impressed by their use of tomols, plank canoes made from redwood, ranging from eight to thirty feet in length, which provided transportation between the mainland and the Channel Islands. Being an avid student of Native American life ways (and a bit of a thrill-seeker), I was ecstatic to discover the UCSB Recreation Department was offering a day kayak trip to the sea caves of Santa Cruz Island.

According to the National Park Service, Santa Cruz Island, known by the Chumash as Limuw, or “in the sea,” had 9,000 years of Native American habitation and was home to over 1,000 people. On their website, the Park Service promises the island will be “a place where you can step back in time.” This is what I hoped for as I embarked on the day’s adventure. In the spirit of the Chumash who had paddled across the channel in tomols, I would trek to Santa Cruz Island and discover its magic by kayak.

The Condor Express, a 75-foot catamaran, was waiting at Santa Barbara harbor at 8:00 am to take the kayakers, the guides, and the gear to the island. It was a gloomy dark-gray morning, but the weather forecast promised sunshine by noon. Bundled in our sweats and ready for adventure, we boarded the boat. Excitement heightened as we entered the channel. It was an unseasonably stormy day at sea, and the swells lifted the boat and dropped it like a roller coaster ride. Excitement quickly gave way to sea-sickness, and at least half of the people aboard stumbled to the aft of the boat. This constituted the remaining hour and a half of the boat ride until we anchored in Prisoner’s Harbor.

In groups of ten or fifteen, we disembarked the Condor Express and settled onto our kayaks with our helmets and life vests fastened tightly. We were one of two groups who had failed to bring wet suits, and by the looks on the guides’ faces it was clear we had made a grave mistake. Although the freezing water took my breath away, my stomach settled almost immediately.

I paddled on with my tandem partner through the giant swells and blustering wind to Painted Cave, one of the largest sea caves in the world. Named not for actual paintings but for its colorful rocks, lichens, and algae, the cave measures nearly a quarter-mile long and 100 feet wide, with an entrance ceiling of 160 feet and a waterfall over the entrance in the spring. Sheltered from the icy wind, we paddled into the depths of the cave towards the darkness. As the tunnel of light from the cave’s opening narrowed into a pitch-black abyss, the resident sea lions (who could sense our presence even in the darkness, although we could not see them) began barking territorially, filling the cave with amplified boisterous echoes. I couldn’t help feeling a little like I was on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland.

As the tide rose, we began paddling out of the cave. With the haunting and mysterious at our backs, the opening to the cave welcomed us with sunshine which had appeared between parted gray clouds while we were inside. Our guide broke out into a slightly off-key rendition of the Beatles “Here Comes the Sun,” and I instantly felt that all we had endured to get there had been worth it. Cheerful red and orange starfish stuck to the sides of the cave’s opening greeted us, and we paddled back to the Condor Express with the sun warming our toes. The boat ride back to Santa Barbara was gentler. Migrating humpback whales graced the waters next to our boat as we traveled, their giant tails waving us on.

We crossed the channel to Painted Cave and returned to the mainland with all the sea-faring equipment modernity has to offer, and yet it was not without great difficulty. The physical and mental strength the Chumash would have possessed to make the 21-mile trip in tomols thousands of years ago no longer seems merely awe-inspiring. It seems miraculous.