The archipelago off the Southern California coastline known as the California Channel Islands is made of eight islands, each with its own distinct character. Our very own Santa Cruz Island holds many distinctions. At 96 square miles it is the largest of the Channel Islands. It is approximately 24 miles long and its highest peak, Diablo Peak, is 2,450 feet tall, the highest in all the Channel Islands. This is the only Channel Island with a valley with vernal pools and a seasonal marsh owed to year-round freshwater creeks. It has the most extensive spectrum of flora and fauna of all the Channel Islands including nine species that are endemic and found nowhere else in the world.

“Cruz” is also noted as having what is considered to be the largest number of sea caves in the world. Many are small and some are large but scores lay out before you waiting to be explored, usually done so by kayak. Then there is Painted Cave; one of the largest sea caves in the world. In the spring a small waterfall trickles down its entrance. Inside colorful rocks, lichens, and algae give the cave its multihued appearance. Entrance to the cave is 160 feet tall and 100 feet wide, large enough for a full size dive charter boat to be completely engulfed by the rock hole. (Dive boats often treat divers to this adventure.) Smaller watercraft can go even further, as much as a quarter mile into the island.
The majority of the holes in this island are actually by definition “caverns.” Caverns are more open where, provided they don’t silt up, daylight can always be seen. And most have easy egress to the surface, usually within the cavern itself. Even so, surge is still a big problem and can be dangerous. Exploring any caverns anywhere is an activity that requires specialized training and equipment. If you choose to enter one of these caverns, use caution and only do so at your own risk.
There are also true underwater caves along the rock faces but they are uncommon. Cave diving requires highly specialized training so as to not get lost in twisting pitch-dark passages with no easy egress. Most of the caves here are not particularly deep. Even with specialized training, diving into these underwater caves is especially dangerous because of the constant strong surge.
The majority of these caverns lie on the west end of the mainland side of the island. (Often referred to as the “front side.”) Some of the caverns are fascinating to explore, others not so much.
Lobster hunting in this area is sporadic. They are abundant in some of the holes, in others none. It is hit or miss. Painted Cave and much of the surrounding area are part of a State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA). Lobster hunting and pelagic finfish hunting are permitted within season and according to California Department of Fish and Wildlife regulations. Scallops, other invertebrates and non-pelagic fish may not be taken. For all regulations visit online. For the areas outside the SMCA, rock scallop hunting is fair to good.
Frankly, the cliffs and coves near the caves will be of more interest to divers. Typically a cave entrance is tucked back into small cove that allows some respite from the long interval swells that so often move in from the northwest. In the coves are kelp forests, small and large, and jumbled boulders. The kelp forests have suffered as of late by the warm water El Niño climate effect but they will no doubt be back. Even so, there are small patches here and there. Under the kelp canopy and between the columns reaching to the surface you will find opaleye, sheephead, and calico bass. Remember, again, if you are spearfishing only pelagic finfish qualify for taking in the SMCA. None of the previous mentioned qualify.
Hovering closer to or on the reef are a variety of rockfish species including the yellow and black-stripped treefish. It is said that its red lips are a territorial display. This is approximately the northernmost range of the bright orange garibaldi. You might spot them also guarding their territory or nests. On the rocks and gravel are ghost gobies and island kelpfish. Look closely and you might be treated to a tiny fringhead goby.
This is an excellent area for wall diving. Many of the cliffs on the surface continue their vertical drop deep underwater. The nearby walls around these coves are nothing short of spectacular. Some drop six stories straight down from the surface, many with radical dark undercuts to explore. Bring a bright light.
Along the cliff walls you will find a cornucopia of marine life. Predominate are the small white and red sea cucumbers, none bigger than the size of your little finger. Give them a macro look. They extend their feathery tentacles into the moving water column to filter food, insert the food-laden arms into the central mouth, and then suck them clean. It is fascinating to watch. These multitudes of feeders pulsing to eat and swaying the surge give the walls a fuzzy furry appearance as if moving in the breeze.
Dotting these fuzzy rock walls are three main varieties of brightly colored anemones. Colonies of pink corynactis anemones dot the walls. Also known as club-tipped anemones, the individual animals are a most the size of the tip of your finger. The white spotted rose anemone is the favorite of many photographers with subtle deep dark red hues. The giant green anemones are bigger than a large hand. They reside in shallower waters along the wall at about 20 to 30 feet.
In the upper surge zone are a multitude of mussels that break off and sink to the bottom where colorful stars feast on them. The wasting disease has reduced the number of stars but they are making a comeback. They include mostly pisaster stars like the ochre, short-spined star and giant-spined star.
With 77 mile of coastline you can imagine that Santa Cruz Island has hundreds of great dive sites. Scores of them lie in the areas around and near the caves and caverns that are so abundant around Painted Cave. While kayaking activities have rightfully exploded in popularity in this area (something you should definitely try), underwater exploration of the cliff faces you will find even more rewarding.
Skill Level: All skill levels outside the caves and caverns. Stay out of the caves are they are dangerous in the surge.
Location: Mainland side of the West End of Santa Cruz Island.
Access: Boat only. Several charter boats leave from Ventura and Santa Barbara. Boat launch facilities also available in these harbors for private vessels.
Depth Range: 15 to 70 feet
Conditions: Fair to good.
Visibility: Very good, averaging 30 to 50 feet.
Photography: Good wide-angle along wall faces, great macro under kelp canopy and at base of walls.
Hunting: Lobster sporadic. Rock scallop hunting fair outside Conservation Area.
Cautions: Surge. Stay well clear of the cavern and cave mouths during heavy surge. Current around the points. Do not enter caves.
Restrictions: A large portion is a Conservation Area. Only lobster and pelagic finfish may be taken in season and accordance with regulations. Check online for specific boundaries for the SMCA.