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Stampede of the Sea Lions (Channel Islands, Day 2)

Last Updated on August 10, 2023

This post is a continuation of Santa Cruz: Spanish for “Isle of Corpses”? (Channel Islands Day 1)

Hiking on Santa Cruz, one of California's Channel Islands
The crew of the Sun Soleil takes their sea legs for a hike on Santa Cruz.

We slept well last night — almost nine hours, in fact — fatigued by our many encounters with rotting animals and the unending activity of hauling anchors, hoisting halyards, and searching for the perpetually elusive “bag of bags” in the chaos of the galley. After a breakfast of omelets, the Sun Soleil headed towards Painted Cave, which, depending on which source you read, is either the world’s largest sea cave or one of the largest. Cap’n Gary sent us off in our vessels — Chris in the inflatable kayak, Robert, Sally, and I in the dinghy — and circled about in the cove awaiting our return.

As we paddled into the opening — 160 feet tall, according to the National Park Service site — we met up with a small flotilla of kayaks on their way out, who had ventured only halfway into the quarter-mile long tunnel due to lack of sufficient lighting. When they saw our giant beacon, they followed us back inside, hoping to see more of the lichen- and algae-painted interior.

Exploring Painted Cave on Santa Cruz in California's Channel Islands
The lighting conditions and bobbing boat made it difficult to get an in-focus shot of Painted Cave.

Just inside the entrance, on a ledge on the right wall of the cave, perched a few smaller sea lions, who slept on, seemingly oblivious to our presence. But as we ventured further inwards, their blubbery friends splashed down from rock outcroppings on either side as we passed their resting places, only to bob up as silhouettes now and again. The sound of the surging surf subsided the further we went back, until, after rounding a corner, it was a soft droning hum, accompanied by the soft dripping of water from the cave’s roof. We paddled as far towards the back as we could, now completely dependent on the uber-beacon’s light. Chris, in the faster and more agile craft, led the way, warning us of protruding rocks and steering us away from dead ends.

Finally, we reached the back wall of the cave, which ended in a rocky beach that sloped precipitously upwards. Intent on seeing the farthest reaches of the world’s largest sea cave, Chris positioned his kayak parallel to shore, ready to hop out and explore on foot. From the dinghy, roughly 15 yards behind him, I shone the spotlight for him to see, while Sally and Robert steered us. When the rocks suddenly began spilling into the water like a stone waterfall, I had visions of the whole cavern collapsing — something akin to the ending of The Goonies, only much, much darker. In the light of our beacon we watched as a stampede of sea lions poured down the slope, leaping over and under Chris and nearly swamping his inflatable kayak. Their eyes shone like laser pointers in the darkness, then disappeared as they flopped into the water, their dark shapes flying towards us and creating a small current of waves as they disappeared into the dark.

Once the chaos was over, we noticed that our tag-along friends had beat a swift retreat away from the marauding pinnipeds, and Chris related how the sea lions had been so close he could smell and feel them, that they had bumped him from beneath as they darted into the watery depths. Although we hadn’t spotted the cave’s resident elephant seal, we’d have quite an adventure to tell when we returned to the mainland. On our way out of the cave, we spotted another “floaty dead thing,” then ran into two members of the Synapse, who seemed tickled pink by our story of the sea lion stampede.

Robert in boat in Painted Cave, Santa Cruz, Channel Islands, California
We head deeper into Painted Cave, out of the reach of sunlight.

We returned to the Sun Soleil, which we now steered towards Little Scorpion, on the lee side of the east end of Santa Cruz. There, Gary told us, we’d have ample time for kayaking and snorkeling before our evening meal. But we first wanted to give our sea legs a little land time, so back in the dinghy we went, heading towards a small inlet that, we were told, would lead to some pleasant hiking trails. We strolled upwards for some time, but after seeing nothing of note except endless grassy hills, we rested a bit, enjoying the stability of solid ground beneath us.

After that night’s dinner of spaghetti, we once again headed topside for a reprise of the Perseids. Although the sky was even clearer than the night before, we didn’t see as many fireworks, although the few we did see were quite spectacular, lasting for several seconds as they streaked across the sky. One final day, then it’s back to the mainland for good.

Day 1:
Santa Cruz: Spanish for “Isle of Corpses”?
Day 2: Stampede of the Sea Lions
Day 3: Anacapa: Unbagged

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