A few weeks ago, I told my friend Bailey that I wanted to go kayaking this summer. For some reason, I imagined it woud be in La Jolla. As if the deal gods were listening, a Groupon offer landed in my email inbox and I snagged two sea cave kayak tours with OEX La Jolla for $25 each. Bailey ended up not being able to go, but my new friend and fellow travel-lover Sarah jumped at the chance.
Despite the fact that the OEX staff couldn’t find our 4pm reservations (we were added onto the 4:30 tour as a courtesy?), the adventure proved to be pretty, well, awesome.
After wiggling into my (already) wet suit, donning our attractive helmets and life jackets, and traipsing down to the beach at La Jolla Shores with 30 other tour members, we got the briefing. Rachel and Cameron were our guides for the day, and they gave us a quick rundown of how to paddle, who should be seated where in the tandem boats, and what to do if we were in distress.
Then we headed out into the surf to board our kayaks – I sat in front to set the pace; Sarah sat in back to steer – and with a push, we were off.
With Rachel’s advice on paddling – “big, deep scoops” – in mind, I charged through the water and immediately crashed into the oncoming waves. We hadn’t been in the kayak for 30 seconds and I was soaked – and we were both laughing. Paddling was not as hard as I anticipated, and though we weren’t leading the group, we kept a solid pace and worked well as a team. The surf was very rough, with large swells that I kept thinking would capsize us – another team capsized within 5 minutes and I thought we were doomed. But we did well for ourselves, and it didn’t take long for me to yell “When are we doing this again?!” with a giant grin on my face.
We passed by the cliffs, marveling at the houses built atop them: Dr. Seuss’ home is one of them, and an enormous, stunning adobe mansion looks like a real life sand castle. Rachel hollered out some history and stories about the precarious cliffside dwellings, including the restaurant that was lashed by a wave that sucked out diners into the ocean. (It has since been rebuilt with aquarium-style glass walls 5 1/2 feet thick.) Another private property fell victim to a vicious storm that crumbled the cliff its guesthouse was built on, and the city of La Jolla fined the owners $40,000 for “littering”! To add insult to injury, the fine was doubled because the property was on a state park reserve. Ouch.
Despite my initial surprise that paddling wasn’t so hard…my arms got tired fast. I was just starting to become very aware of my shoulder muscles when we all stopped for another break. This time, Rachel informed us that we were floating atop the largest gathering place for leopard sharks in the world. Yes, that was what lay below us in the murky sea: hundreds of leopard sharks. OH JOY.
Luckily, leopard sharks are harmless (Sarah reassured me that if any great white sharks approached us, she’d bash their noses with her paddle), and unluckily, we couldn’t see them because the waves were so choppy they were churning up the sea bottom. We also couldn’t see the famous garibaldi, Nemo’ bright orange-colored cousin and California’s state fish (because apparently we have one.)
We paddled out further toward the caves, where we would get a chance to go inside one of them. The current was very strong near the cliffs, and Rachel and Cameron warned us that it was very important to constantly maneuver our kayaks so we were far from the rocks. We were joined by another group at this point, which meant that each kayak team’s turn into the cave took twice as long.
If you think we just sat there and anchored in the water, waiting for our turn, you are sadly mistaken. We bobbed on the constant swells, and couldn’t set our paddles down for more than 10 seconds before the current started to sweep us away toward the rocks. If we took our eyes off the mouth of the cave for 30 seconds, we’d be too far away; Cameron would call for teams to paddle back to the group to stay safe. It was work, and hard work at that – Sarah and I had to stop and slow the boat, reroute it, steer around in big circles, and constantly work the paddles just to stay in one relatively general location.
But we were treated to sea lions playing on the rocks, snorkelers and divers jumping off the cliffs right by us, and pelicans swooping nearby to catch fish. The late afternoon sun was dazzling on the water, painting all of La Jolla Shores and the open ocean a bright golden color, and I mused about how this is, hands down, my favorite place in all the world.
We were nearly last to head into the cave, and I don’t know how Rachel was still moving – she was in the water with flippers, guiding each kayak through the narrow mouth of the cave for well over half an hour. She guided us through and we ooh-ed and aah-ed at the dancing blue colors on the cave ceiling, the clear bottom littered with large boulders, and the faintly glowing pink of the far side of the cave. (Rachel said that in the right conditions, the whole cave glows pink from the unique species of fluorescent algae.)
The journey back to the beach was the hardest stretch in my opinion. The current was working against us, and our arms were already tired after 1.5 hours out in the open water. Sarah and I perfected our “paddle grunt,” and cheerily sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and “just keep swimming” (from Finding Nemo) to keep each other entertained.
As we gathered for the final time about 100 yards from shore, Rachel gave us a rundown of how the re-entry would work. This, she said, was what the instructors called “the kayak divorce.” We had to keep the nose of the kayak pointed at the beach at all times, and paddle steadily forward. We’d eventually catch a wave, which would present a whole myriad of challenges: if you found the nose of the kayak diving, you had to lean way back (almost horizontal) to level it out. If you got turned so you were sideways with the wave, reject your natural instinct to lean into the wave and lean out of it.
Sarah and I were third in line to head in. I turned to her and jokingly said, “Why do I feel like we made it all this way to eat it on the beach?” Several nearby kayakers laughed, and I hoped our kayak wouldn’t divorce us.
The first team caught a wave, rode it far in…and capsized. The second team made it all the way safely without a wave, and we all cheered. Then it was our turn.
We started to paddle, steering the nose toward the beach, and within 10 seconds I turned my head back and saw an enormous swell building behind us. I yelled to Sarah, “There’s a HUGE wave coming!” (along with several expletives), and then it was upon us – and before we could even try to gain control, we flipped. Bottom’s up.
The good thing is the wave crashed us right onto the beach, and we emerged from the water soaking wet and laughing. I grabbed the paddles, Sarah turned the boat over, and we splashed over to the waiting truck to stow our gear. I turned back to look at the rest of our group still out on the water, and I swear I heard cheering.
All in all, those two hours were absolutely fantastic. I’m sorry we didn’t get to see more marine life (next time I want to see the leopard sharks, garibaldi, and pink algae!) but I had more fun than I expected to, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
But I am so going to be sore tomorrow.