Wet and Wild: Secrets of Southern California (originally posted on Eons.com, 2008)

Kayaking near Anacapa

    I dip my paddle into the kelp again as my kayak rocks gently, and I look up beyond the cliff wall to see pelicans gliding near a lighthouse. There are two of us skimming this canopy of the Pacific Ocean and no other humans in site. The metropolitan California Mainland is only 12 miles away, but we are in the wilderness of islands.
    Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara-just the names of the islands stir the imagination. Anacapa is only a one-hour boat ride from Southern California's populated coast, but many locals are unaware that north of the more famous Catalina Island, there are five different natural sanctuaries that form part of the Channel Islands National Park.
    The other half of this under-appreciated national treasure is the protected waters that surround the Islands that are sometimes called "the Galapagos of California" because of the diverse wildlife. The ecosystems include more than 2,000 terrestial plants and animals with 145 that are found nowhere else in the world. The sea's kelp forests help support a rich ecology of over 1,000 types of life ranging from the tiny plankton to the earth's largest creature, the Blue Whale.
    Unlike California's Yosemite and Sequoia Redwoods, this National Park cannot be reached by car. The family-run Island Packers offers boat trips to all the islands. Anacapa is closest to the harbor of Oxnard (between Malibu and Santa Barbara). Our short voyage crossed international shipping lanes and navigated through waters that are the migration path or playground for 27 kinds of whales and dolphins.
    Before dropping off hikers on Anacapa, the boat stopped and two kayaks were plopped in the water. I climbed down a ladder into the long plastic yellow one. Next came Mike Lamm, who seated himself in the orange kayak. My paddling coach, who is also a National surfing champ and bon vivant philosopher filled me in on the paddles, life jacket, helmet and directional techniques. We then began what he calls the Kayaker's Passage, a route along the island's coast that includes arches, rookeries, a blowhole, and many caves. After learning the basic maneuvers, I am soon immersed in a rhapsody of beauty of sky, water and land.
    I feel like I am in the middle of a sensual organic symphony -- all these intertwined rhythms of the undulating swells of the ocean, the waves of the sea back and forth, my paddle percussively in and out. The wind section holds its own -- rippling the surface, pricking my skin, scuttling the clouds. The gulls sound like modern strings speaking their mind. The wonderful pinnipeds bark their brassy refrains- the sea lions and harbor seals trying to outdo all the other sounds if you get too close.
    We kayaked toward a rookery with over a hundred hefty mammals and pups enjoying a sandy cove. We kept a respectful distance. Still dozens waddled and plunged in the water toward us and then around us. Some seemed curious and poked their heads up as if they wanted to be petted. Others were clearly suspicious, reminding us it was their realm we were being allowed to visit. I enjoyed being outnumbered by another species.
    If I looked up the cliff, I could see a few tiny figures watching us. Two weeks before, I had been one of the hikers gazing at the playful sea lions and seals below. David Begun, a volunteer National Park Guide shared tales about the wildlife and the Chumash Indians that once roamed the island. He also carried first aid and communications because we were in a "rough and remote place." That day, we humans were vastly outnumbered by hundreds of birds, including the world's largest population of California Brown pelicans. Some of them were swooping around the island's picturesque lighthouse, the last major one built on the West Coast.
    There were also hundreds of sea gulls everywhere, including underfoot. Dozens were sitting along the path, on nests with green speckled eggs. They were busy protecting their unborn, squawking warnings to stay away. Without a regular fresh water source on this Island, there are no four legged predators to bother the gulls, which faithfully make their nests in the same places each year, but I imagined us two leggers didn't look good to them.
    There's a simple campground available to the public, with gorgeous views, just short hikes away. I wondered what would it be like to sleep under the stars there, knowing you and your campmates were the only ones on the whole island at night. What a unique option for solitude so close to Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States.
    Our guide told us the other islands in this National Park have fresh water and more diverse animal habitats, but he really extolled the half of the Park that is water, saying it's one of the best places in the world for scuba diving, snorkeling and kayaking. Since kayaking is a new way to explore for me, that's what I wanted to try when I returned.
    Now, here I am excited, but hesitant, as I tighten the strap on my helmet for my first kayak into a sea cave, unsure of my mastery of moving this bright yellow plastic banana around in a confined space with surging pushes. Mike enters first showing me the route and timing. As soon as I am in, the sea cave casts its spell.
    I wonder if I am in a womb of the earth about to be birthed-- embraced by the flesh of land, but bobbing and floating in fluids, wary of bumps, pausing to enjoy a mystical, mythical sense while looking out from the dark at the world beyond. And then whoosh, with the right paddle thrust and outgoing wave I am immersed in bright light, glad to be alive!
    We paddle over to the barnacled sides of the cliffs to get closer to purple and orange starfish, larger than my hands. In calm waters I can see the bright orange Girabaldi fish and the beguiling sway of the sea grasses below.
    Further out, the pacific kelp are the redwoods of the ocean, sometimes reaching hundreds of feet up from the ocean bottom. Their hollow bulbs act as floats to create buoyancy for photosynthesis near the surface. I imagine what it must have been like a 1,000 years ago for the Chumash to paddle their wooden canoes, called tomols, over and through the thick kelp like we are now. Tomols are "the oldest example of ocean watercraft in North America," according to the National Park web site. Here we are navigating with modern plastic boats, but with the same sensations of nature.
    Mike has names for features of the Kayaker's Passage, like "Witch's Hat" for a spiked islet and the Tunnel of Wishes, where he asks me to make a wish and says it will come true if I survive the gauntlet. When the sea surges, I dig deep with my paddle, but I still bump into a rock and re-bound-- a small price for a dream.
    After more dramatic caves and arches, I am beginning to feel warm from the sun and exertion, so Mike paddles over to a blowhole that geysers laterally from the coast. He calls the bursts "dragon breaths." I wait. And then the drenching sound and water completely soak me and I am laughing loudly and joyfully when the next exhalation drenches me again.
    "It pulls the giggles right out of you," he says trying to catch his own breath between laughs.
    In the distance, the Island Packers boat is waiting for us, so we paddle reluctantly over, savoring our last stretch. The boat then picks up that day's hikers including a group of school kids on a field trip that really was a field day.
    We all head back to the Mainland, our lives a day richer.

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