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Venture into Painted Cave

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

It was the perfect day out on the water. A thick layer of fog stretched out across the mainland and the clear mountaintops of Ojai and Santa Barbara could be seen rising above it all. The winds were calm and the swell rose up no more than two feet. The conditions were just so, it was hardly a guess as to what we intended to do.

Chris, Kim and I hopped into the F-250 pickup truck, double-checking to make sure we had everything: Lunch? Check. Binoculars? Check. Gasoline? Check. Telemetry? Check. As we pulled out of the Navy Site, I had a feeling we were forgetting something – a flashlight.

“There’s no way we’ll see anything in there without a flash light,” I said. “We’ve gotta grab a flashlight.”

We stopped the truck. Chris hopped out and ran inside, returning with a foot and half long metal flashlight – trooper style. We knew we couldn’t get out on that flat-as-glass water and deny ourselves this unforgettable side-excursion simply by lack of illumination.

A 9:00 am we had made it down to Dave Mills’ tool shop at Prisoner’s Harbor. This is where the 12-foot rubber bottom zodiac is stored that is used to conduct eagle surveys along the shore. Chris backed the bumper up to the head of the trailer and Kim and I jumped out to tend to our usual prepping duties. After opening all four air chambers around the boat, I plugged in the foot pump and began putting air into the rubber vessel. Kim looked over the engine, plugging the hose to wash it clear of any residual salt water and checking to see if the water pump was working. Like Andy (another IWS seasonal) always said, “If it ain’t pissin’, ya ain’t fishin’.” This is one of the most important keys to maintaining the engine. We loaded on the gasoline jugs and attached the fuel pump. It was time to go.

I backed the trailer up on the rocky beach ensuring that the truck was in four low. There is no boat launch at Prisoner’s Harbor and the beach quickly erodes from the pounding surf, forming an insurmountable berm. Therefore, it is necessary that the beach be bulldozed regularly. I looked into the rearview mirror and the beach looked good and flat. Chris inserted a few plugs into the back of the boat and Kim removed a bolt from the trailer’s extension. Two large rocks were placed in front of the trailer’s hind wheels and I then pulled the truck up a few feet to extend the long metal rod. This would give us more space between the truck and the boat; so much in fact that the back wheels of the truck barely had to touch the water.

As aforementioned, it was a calm day on the water and the launch was particularly easy. I remember one day when the waves were crashing a little more violently than we had hoped. Somehow, Dave got the boat caught perpendicular to the back of the trailer and the waves began crashing over the side of the humbled dingy. It was a long, uncomfortable day for Dave.

Dave and I on the zodiak surveying for bald eagles

A dead squid I found on the beach at Prisoner's Harbor

So Chris, Kim and I set to sea with a cold breeze on our faces. We all simultaneously reached for sweatshirts and windbreakers, as it is always colder out on the water. We passed the usual sites of the rocky California coastline: harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) sprawled out in clustered communes, western gulls (Larus occidentalis), cormorants (Phalocrocorax spp.), brown pelicans (Pelicanus occidentalis), and black oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) casting clamorous shrieks off of breccia rocks. Kelp snakes up from the bottom of the ocean; sometimes I can see the bottom – a good 40 feet – with the bright orange flashes of garibaldi fish (Hypsypops rubicundus) and beneath them, prolific gardens of spiny sea urchins.

A black oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani) searches the rocks for mollusks

We pass Arch Rock, an eroded granitic slab very much worthy of its name, and slowly crawling about its shadow in the splash zone are the conspicuous keystone predators of the intertidal, the giant starfish (Pisaster gigantea). Up high on the vertical cliffs above, I notice the resinous charm of a hundred mighty live-forevers (Dudleya spp.), a stonecrop so vivid in color and enduring in strength. Beside them are the stretched woody branches of island buckwheat (Eriogonum giganteum) and what seem like grotesque, decaying carcasses of the late Coreopsis. Above all the bluff scrub on a sheer granitic face is the aerie of a cackling peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) whose two downy chicks wait patiently for their next meal.

Arch Rock is one of several natural bridges found in Channel Islands National Park

A few giant starfish (Pisaster gigantea) along the intertidal zone

Beyond Diablo Point, where the waters are more exposed to offshore winds, it is naturally much choppier. Slowing the boat down to prevent from getting wet, we look ahead and can see the cliffs of Cueva Valdez. Our primary reason for coming out to this point is to get a sighting on two courting bald eagles that have been consistently spotted using this territory. The other reason for coming out isn’t exactly work oriented, but I suppose it could be seen as a brief afternoon respite. I will certainly remember it as one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.

The rugged northern coastline of Santa Cruz Island near Cueva Valdez

Painted Cave – the largest known above-water sea cave in the world – is a mere 15 minutes west of Cueva Valez. Earlier in the year, the idea to take the boat inside the cave had surfaced but it had always been shot down on account of either high swell or lack of proper illumination. This time the conditions were right and we were well equipped. Our journey into the cave was pending.

Ragged bends in the coastline conceal this magnificent sea cave for it is not noticed until it is too late: mysterious forces seem to suck one up into it, exerting a prodigious negative pressure that draws up all of that around it. It is like the gargantuan mouth of a whale and we seem to fulfill the roles of the humbled souls of those that met their fate aboard the Essex.

The cave’s front entrance towers over us a height of 60 feet. It may as well be the regal gate of a medieval castle of which an alluring princess waits inside. Its walls are dusted with colorful lichens that give the impression of carefully crafted murals – the hallways and chambers of this castle have been graced by Nature’s art – and indeed it is well deserved of its name.

Staring into Painted Cave from the outside

Our boat floats in on the gentle swell; we have now shut off the engine and have reached for the two wooden oars. I gaze out into the darkening abyss – a long tunnel etching its way into the rock an astounding 1227 feet – and begin to hear the barking of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) deep in the confines of the cave. I wonder if instead, this sound is the echoing moans of the ghosts of those lost at sea, and as the gentle swell picks us up and propels us deeper into the darkening gorge an eerie chill runs down my spine. The walls begin to close in around us and we push off with the oars to avoid impaling the boat on the sharp, jutting rocks. Looking down beneath me, I see what at first looks like the reflections of exposed rock on the surface of the water. Upon closer inspection, I find that I am gazing into the rocky bottom of the cave. I am amazed at the clarity of the water; I have heard that this area is a mecca for divers for this very reason. Apparently, the waters in this part of the Pacific are clearer than anywhere else along the coast from Alaska to Patagonia.

The view looking out of Painted Cave

As we draw nearer to Painted Cave’s inner chamber, the cacophony of congregated sea lions grows greater and the sickening smell of rotting fish is a sure sign we are getting close. It is as if the moist, rotten breath has lingered extensively and condensed – like morning dew – on the rocky promontories about the cave. Droplets fall and collect on the lens of my sunglasses. It is a strange, stinking world we have entered.

Rounding the bend into the darkening chamber, the smells and sounds seemed to crescendo to a climax of frightening intensity. We reach the whale’s wretched stomach and all the amplified guttural groans are all too real. The penetrating beam of the flashlight momentarily seizes my growing trepidation and soon many pairs of glowing eyes and shearing canines are strangely revealed. At once, as if an alarm had sounded, the entire rookery makes a sudden plunge into the inky black water around our boat. Swarming like killer bees, the sea lions make it clear that they disapproved of our presence.

We make a rather rapid exit from the chamber so as to give some space to the feisty pinnipeds. One tempestuous soul follows us closely as we push off the sides toward the light. He doesn’t let up until we are well out of the chamber. Never before have I encountered such an aggressive group of sea lions. In Baja, I snorkeled with big bulls alongside their pups and never felt even the slightest bit of aggression from them – only playful curiosity. I wondered if these were a devilish clan of sea lions. Why else would they live deep in the dark refuge of a cave?

We left the formidable jowls of Painted Cave and set our bow towards Prisoner’s. In the far-off distance we could see humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) hurling their bodies up out of the deep blue void in front of us. The ocean was alive. I could feel it breathing in each gentle loft of the swell.

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