San Diego, CA

Exploring the Underwater Park in San Diego

Rene Cizio

The La Jolla sea caves In California, are part of an underwater park with a kelp forest and breeding ground for all sorts of sea creatures. They’re accessible to anyone from water, but a few can be reached by land too.

Along the Pacific California coast, there is a different little beach town every 25 miles. Each is unique, but perhaps none more remarkable than La Jolla. In La Jolla (Hoy ya), there’s an underwater park made up of 6,000 acres and four different habitats. There’s a rocky reef, kelp bed, sand flats, and submarine canyon.

I can’t resist a reason to get in a kayak and explore, so I headed right over.

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Beach Trail

If you don’t like kayaking, in La Jolla, there’s also a 2.5-mile, paved beach trail. It takes you along the coastline, cliffs and allows you to view a few of the caves and sea life from the shore. There are food and drink trucks, jewelry vendors set up under little tents, and even places to rent snorkel and beach equipment on the trail.

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I walked the trail and it was a great experience. Seals and sea lions lay right off the shore and if you venture down the stairs on the beaches, you can get close to them – just be careful! They’ll bark loudly to let you know if you’ve gotten too close, so give them their space to relax – don’t make them bark. There’s also a fascinating assortment of pelicans and other sea birds fishing off the shoreline. Snorkelers and scuba divers filled the water exploring the underwater world.

Underwater Park

San Diego created the underwater park in 1970. Within it are the reef, kelp forest, sand flats and canyons. Part of the park is an Ecological Reserve and some is also Marine Life Refuge. No fishing or scavenging is permitted within the reserve, making it a haven for all sorts of animals who might not otherwise hang around.

Two artificial reefs keep the waves minimal and attract all sorts of wildlife while creating an environment for them to thrive. This makes it a hotbed of sea life activity you can’t see anyplace else.

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The La Jolla Canyon reaches 600 feet below the surface and the sharp drop combined with the abundance of marine life are a reason why you’re also more likely to see migrating whales in the area. The canyons here are among the most studied submarine canyons in the world.

Kayaking to the Sea Caves

I’ll use any excuse to get out on the water, so when I heard there were sea caves you could only access from a kayak, well, I booked my tour.

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The area is so popular for kayaks, snorkeling and scuba diving that there are many shops lining the main street heading toward the beach. On Avenida de la Playa, you can rent any sort of water equipment, book a tour, grab lunch, or enjoy the street entertainment. I did it all with a watermelon Fresca.

After obtaining my gear and with lifejacket and helmet in tow, I made my way down to the beach. I was surprised that they gave me a helmet for my kayak tour, but they explained waves in the caves can’t be controlled and waves may toss you into a cave wall. Maybe headfirst if they rise just right. Ouch.

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On the beach, multiple companies have kayaks and paddleboards and other equipment lined up and ready to go, I spotted mine and a group of about 10 of us headed out on the water together.

You can see the cliffs from the shore and can even walk on top of them from the popular beach cliffs hike, which I did earlier in the day. But the best way to access the caves is from the water.  

Inside the Sea Caves

The park has seven sea caves carved from 75-million-year-old sandstone. These seven cave openings are in a narrow cliff wall between La Jolla Beach and La Jolla Cove. They each have names: The Clam’s Cave, Sunny Jim’s Cave, Arch Cave, Sea Surprize, Shopping Cart, Little Sister, and White Lady. Which is exactly what I would have named them, too, obviously.

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Most of the caves are small and just big enough for a few people, but others are large enough to hold several kayaks at once. We went into Arch Cave, where we could fit multiple kayaks in the cave at one time.

Unlike the other caves, Arch Cave is open on both ends, so you could go through it into a tiny cove. Inside, it was dark, but we could see from the opening on the other end about 60 feet away. I was startled when in the middle of the cave we spotted a big Sea Lion sitting on a perch halfway up the wall. He watched us lazily but seemed indifferent to our presence.

Inside the cave, the water was crystal clear and I saw the California fish – an Orange Garibaldi. It looks like an oversized goldfish. After a few minutes, we exited the cave and paddled around the other six caves, which were all smaller.

Open Water

As I paddled around, there were various seals and sea lions lounging nearby and swimming in the water. They swam around our boats and perched on the cliffs. They’d give off a loud bark to anyone who got too close.

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The water is a haven for many large sea creatures, including Leopard Sharks. Because of the reserve and ecosystem, the largest annual meeting of leopard sharks worldwide happens on these shores. Pregnant females give birth to large numbers of baby sharks between July and December. But we didn’t see any and they’re not fearful sharks in any case.

Snorkeling and Diving

The area is so popular for underwater sports they rent the gear right on the beach. You’ll see many people snorkeling and swimming out at the reef. Some take boats or paddleboards, but the majority just start on the shore. You’ll see people gearing up, carrying fins or oxygen tanks from the shores into the water.

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But many people preferred to watch the shore. You can see a few caves, many seals and sea lions and even part of the kelp forest from shore along the two-mile coastline. If you don’t want to get in the water but would like to go inside a cave, you can do that too. You can access Sunny Jim’s Cave from the Cave Store perched on top of the cliffs. For about $10, you enter the store and take a tunnel down into the cave. There, you’ll find a sort of water balcony where you can explore a few feet inside the cave.

Back to Shore

As the sun was setting, the dolphins came out to swim alongside us. They arched gracefully in the water as we made our way back to shore. We stopped halfway back and jumped in the water for a swim, dolphins and sea lions swimming nearby. We didn’t see any sharks, sea turtles, or the thousands of fish species unique to the area, but each day is different.

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There were small waves as we paddled to the beach. They tossed my kayak like it was nothing and sped me to shore like I was surfing.

After, soaking wet, I walked back down the main strip with my newly made kayak friends to return my gear. I had avocado tacos at a restaurant next door and watched the sunset.

Find the Underwater Park near 8302 Camino Del Oro, La Jolla, CA 92037.

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Digital nomad, solo road tripping through the USA in my van. I write about travel, adventure, culture, and self-improvement. Pictures on Instagram @renecizio

Chicago, IL
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