I have to start with a confession: I stole this cave years ago from Jerry Shapiro who owned the Bold Contender (which is now the Pacific Star). On a trip to Santa Barbara, Jerry told us he’d found this shallow tunnel and would we like to dive it? We said, “Sure,” and I was entranced. When we asked what it was called, Jerry said, “If you like it, it’s called Jerry’s Cave. If you don’t like it, it’s called Ken’s Cave.”
When I came back, I told him I liked it so much, I wanted to call it Ken’s Cave. When Jerry started to protest, I mockingly threatened to withhold the charter check if we didn’t start calling it “Ken’s Cave.” And that’s what we’ve always referred to it ever since. (I fully realize that some others may call it by a different name, but since I’m the one writing this article, I’m going to do my best to make the name stick.)
Whatever you call it, Ken’s Cave is simply a great dive and one of my favorites at Santa Barbara Island. But can only be safely dived when the conditions are right, which generally means a fairly calm sea.
Ken’s Cave is found about halfway between the right side of The Rookery and the Landing Pier. Most of the captains know where it is, but what you look for is a seam in the rock face that runs upper left to lower right. The entrance to the cave/tunnel is right beneath that.
The great thing about this dive is that it’s shallow (so it’s a good end-of-day dive), it’s interesting, and it offers a lot to see. And there are a number of ways to dive it.
If you were looking at it from the top, you’d see the cave part of it as a tunnel on the left hand-edge of the site. The tunnel starts in about 15 feet of water and runs straight in to the island. It’s not very tall but it’s fairly wide and it’s got a bottom that consists of loose stones and pebbles. When you first go in, it will appear totally black like a cave. But give yourself 30 seconds or so to let your eyes adjust, and you’ll see light at the end of the tunnel. The light comes from the exit on the back right and some blowholes in the center and left of the back wall.
Be aware that you’re going to get pushed back and forth by the surge a bit while you’re in the tunnel/cave portion (which is why it’s best to dive this on relatively calm days). Don’t fight the surge. Just let it push you or drag you for a moment and wait for the lull. That’s when you can make your move.
At the back end of the tunnel/cave, there are three blowholes that the sea lions (who will frequently zoom in and out while you’re inside the tunnel) use as entry/exit points. You need to avoid these because it doesn’t take much water movement from the swell to throw you into the blowhole and that simply won’t be a good thing.
But the tunnel doesn’t end in the blowholes. As you reach the back of the tunnel (which is maybe 30-40 yards long), there’s a large exit on the right-hand side. Going out this way, you are now in a channel that’s also 15-20 feet deep that sits behind a natural seawall. This can be really interesting because you can hug the wall, look up, and watch the waves break over your head. As the larger ones break, you will literally be fully engulfed in white bubbly water from the churning action of the breaking wave. Just wait 10-20 seconds and everything will clear out. Once you get used to it, it’s pretty cool.
As you continue down the channel, you’ll notice fish moving in and out, plenty of invertebrates clinging to the walls, and sea lions eying you as they head towards the back end of the main tunnel.
About halfway down the channel (maybe another 50 yards or so), glance to your right and you’ll see a natural underwater arch that marks an exit from the channel back out on to the main reef. There is usually some schooling fish that hang out here, and there’s a large rock in the middle of the channel that’s interesting to explore.
If you don’t exit here, you can keep moving a little further down the channel, and a short while later the natural seawall ends and you’re back out on the main reef.
Personally, I like to do the dive starting at the tunnel, hang out in the back for a while, move along the seawall and then come out through the arch. But you can also run the dive the other way, going in either at the far right end of the channel or through the arch and continue down the channel to end up in the tunnel/cave. You can at that point either exit back onto the main reef, or turn around and retrace your steps.
And for you purists who are wondering why it’s not called Ken’s Tunnel instead of Ken’s Cave, one word: alliteration.
Ken’s Cave can be a fun and interesting dive and as long as you stay aware of the wave motion and the surge, one that divers of all skill levels can enjoy the next time you’re at Santa Barbara Island.