The Camping is Easy at Refugio

Located just a few miles north of Santa Barbara and Goleta , the beachfront campground at Refugio is a great spot for a weekend getaway, especially when you don’t have time and money to actually “get away.”


Back in February we were fortunate enough to have a warm weekend matched with some prime diving conditions. Refugio was the spot to go.


The campsites are literally feet away from the water. There’s a nice little creek that runs through the middle of the grounds, and most campsites come with a nice array of big, shady trees perfect for a hammock or swing.Image

The railroad tracks are just next to the campgrounds, so bring earplugs if the train may be bothersome at night. Most campsites are also equipped with a firepit, picnic table, and bathrooms and showers nearby (don’t forget quarters for the showers!) There is also a small general store on-site.

The best beachfront sites are reserved for the hike and bike campers. These are also the least expensive.

For the bikers: there’s a fun path called the Aniso Trail that goes to El Capitan and back from the campsite; the official trail closed a few years ago, but you can go around the closures and still get a great view of the bluffs!


For the beach strollers: There’s lots to find in the washed up kelp, including shark’s “mermaid purses” if you have a keen eye! You can also climb around the rocks and see what is hiding there during low tide. We found an octopus, fish, lots of mussels, and a few crabs!


For the actives: Relax on the swingset, play frisbee on the beach, shoot hoops in the basketball court, or volleyball on the grass field.


For the divers: Our first dive, we headed out North towards the kelp beds in the right of the cove, but found nothing but a couple of crabs and starfish on a desolate sandy bottom (Turns out, we did not swim far enough out.) The second dive, we finned straight out from the lifeguard station pretty far before going down, and even then had to fumble our way through some green, churned up water before it cleared up to 15ft viz and awesome shelf. There was lots of color and life on this reef, and it was worth the swim.  Max depth was 25-30 ft.


For everybody: don’t forget the s’mores, music, good company, and to watch the glorious sunsets that usually accompany a fun day at Refugio!



Killer Whales and a perfect day at sea.


photo by Dayton Pickering

I’m outstretched on the top deck, with a cool drink in hand and a smile across my salty face. I hear soft chatter below as the hunters compare their prizes– sheepshead, perch, scallops– and the last of the divers peel off their gear.

The water is glassy smooth as the boat’s engine works up a rumble and we start to head away from the island. I close my eyes as the rolling of the boat and the warm sun on my back lulls my tired body to sleep. Yes, today was a perfect day for a Channel Islands boat dive.

Moments later the squeak of the intercom jolts me awake as the captain announces “Orca sighting off the front bow!” The boat springs to life; I hear screams and the pounding of feet sprinting up the ladder from the bunks. We are all crowded at the bow, squinting into the sun and searching the blue waters for any sign of a fin.

We hold our breath. The engine is off. The boat is still. Even the water seems to pause in anticipation.

Suddenly an outstretched finger and a shout points to a tall, graceful fin gliding across the water. And then another! Three of them! A small family of killer whales, just a few stretches away from our mesmerized eyes, shooting spouts of water and singing to each other.

They tease us; swimming closer, then disappearing for a few minutes, only to pop up next to the bow, flashing their grey markings and slippery black skin.

I hear the captain explain the rarity of this sighting; every two, three years maybe.

My mouth hangs open in fascination; seeing orcas, these magnificent dolphin-like, powerful creatures, approaching the boat with such curiosity, staring me down with their dark, black eyes, and then disappearing into the deep waters again.

Forty-five minutes later, and all too soon, the family gives us one last show of their dorsal fins, and head back out to hunt in the channel.  The engine roars back to life. The waves slap the sides of the boat. Divers retire back to the deck. Conversations resume.

I stand at the bow a few minutes longer, resting my hand on the anchor line as I watch Santa Barbara Harbor grow closer. The wind fusses with my hair. The sun beats down on my face. I close my eyes and smile. Yes, a truly perfect day at sea.

A list of Catalina Musts

Recently I spent a weekend with some of the most rad people ever- Scuba Club- on Catalina Island.

I’ve already shared with you pictures from catalina island, but i’ve yet to divulge all of the secret (and not so secret) must-do activities while visiting Avalon, Catalina.

Before I do, here’s how you get to the island: pick a date and reserve a spot on the Catalina Express either out of Long Beach or San Pedro. Then mark your calendar and get REALLY excited. In between that and boarding the ferry, take a motion sickness pill- just in case.

If you’re planning on staying more than a day-trip’s worth, I recommend  hotel La Paloma Las Flores. Quaint, relatively inexpensive, and located in the heart of Avalon. Or skip the hotel and get a spot at the campgrounds!

For divers, there is a tank fill truck right at the dive park- Catalina Divers. There is also ScubaLuv in Avalon. Both charge $7 per tank fill.

So, now that you’re on the island, here’s a list you can start experiencing for yourself.

1. hike to Wrigley Memorial- $0

2. find the pet cemetery- $0

3. dive the dive park- and while you’re there, find the Jacques Cousteau and memorial plaques and the sunken glass-bottom boat – $7 tank fill

4. get Big-Olaf’s ice-cream. – $4

5. freedive/ snorkel Lover’s Cove – $0 (if you bring your own mask, snorkel and fins. Otherwise you can rent them right at Lover’s)

6. go on a night dive at the dive park and shut off your dive light for a minute at the bottom to see the bioluminescence -$ 7 tank fill

7. search for buffalo – $0

8. rent a tandem bike with a friend and cruise around town for an hour – $10

9. scuba at Descanso Beach – $7 tank fill

10. go to VONS, get some fixings and have a picnic on the beach – price depends on how hungry you are!

11. go inner-tubing at Descanso – $5/ hr.

12. rent some kind of boat, kayak, or paddleboard and ride around the harbor

13. dive the Valiant, just outside the dive park (get permission from harbormaster first!)- $ 7 tank fill

14. look in the harbor waters for Julia Roberts’ wedding ring

15. get Big Olaf’s again…seriously, do it. – $4

My introduction to SUP – the latest coastal craze

I’ve been wanting to try stand-up paddleboarding for some time, and today my roommate and I thought it might be fun to give SUP a try with Morro Bay’s Central Coast Stand-Up Paddleboards! We were right- it was ridiculously fun!

really- could I ask for a better location?

The shop is right on the water, and the owner, Matt, was really friendly and we could tell he knew what he was doing when it came to SUP. It cost each of us $20.00 for an hour rental which included all the equipment (board, paddle, leash) and an introductory lesson before getting in the water.

When we first walked in the little shop, he explained that the current conditions in the bay were not ideal for learning, and there was a really strong southbound current with a lot of wind chop. If we tried going out right at the dock behind the shop, as beginners we would probably end up in Los Osos within the hour.

So, Matt decided to try out something new. We hopped in his car with the paddle boards on the back, and drove up Embarcadero towards Morro Rock until we got to Coleman Beach. This protected, calm little area also known as Mother’s Beach allowed us the perfect spot to get on our boards and ride the current down the bay until we reached the shop. After a brief lesson, we got on and started our first journey gliding through the water, paddles in hand, Morro Rock at our backs. Meanwhile, Matt got back in his car and drove back to his shop so he could meet us back at the dock.

The water was cold and kept splashing up onto my board, but I barely had to paddle with the current. Most of the time I stayed on my knees for fear of falling in with the rough conditions, but towards the end of our ride when the water was sheltered by docks we managed to stand up on our boards. It was a blast riding along the bay, looking at all the boats and shops on either side of me. It was easier than I thought carrying my camera with me, but I didn’t take very many pictures before the housing lens fogged up (gotta get more moisture munchers!).

We also were greeted by a curious sea lion along the way, who swam fairly close to each of our paddleboards.

The water pulled us along so fast that it only took 30 minutes to get back to the dock, so Matt let us practice standing in the calm waters next to the dock, and then offered us half our money back because we didn’t use the full hour.

The experience worked our muscles, as I am sitting here writing this my thighs are already sore, and I’m sure that after an hour of standing up the entire time, I would safely be able to say that SUP’ing is a great core workout.

I was sad to step onto land back at the shop, but excited for my next chance to get back in the water.  SUP’ing is such an awesome water activity on the rise along the California coast.

Pirate’s Cove: a little more booty than you’d expect, but still a coastal gem

I’ve been to Pirate’s Cove a few times, and it’s always been a treat.

Pirate's Cove

Parking is free, and there’s a few different fun spots you can go to from the trails. There is a cave overlooking the water and tide-pools to explore (both found by heading right on the trail and following the signs), but most recently I’ve gone down to the beach area.

Once you make your way down the steep little trail leading to the beach (be careful climbing down–I’ve watched someone fall and have to get carried up firefighters), you’ll find yourself on a skinny stretch of sand sandwiched between the cliffs and the waves.

beach photo credit: R. Seidman

It’s very pretty there, and when I went in the mid- afternoon on a weekend day it was not crowded at all. There is plenty of room to stretch out a big blanket and relax on your own or with friends. Don’t be alarmed when a less-than clothed body walks by- this beach is also a nude beach, though the boldly undressed tend to stay at the far end of the beach.

Of course, the water is icy cold, so try going for a walk along the sand, enjoying the view of the ocean. Occasionally you will catch a sea lion playing near the rocks or a sailboat drifting by the cove.

a beautiful afternoon with the parking lot in the background overlooking Pirate's Cove

About halfway down the beach are some rocks that are fun to climb on and explore. There is not much life to see here, though, so for the real tide-pools walk all the way to the rocks down the beach or head back up the trail towards the cave.

google satellite view of Pirate's Cove

There’s only one thing about Pirate’s Cove that I don’t like, and it has nothing to do with the natural cove itself. It’s the trash. People leave behind things like food wrappers, bottles, cans, shoes, boxes, plastic bags and I’ve even seen a display of undergarments adorning the brush along the trail. All the trash takes away from the beauty of the cove, and quite frankly, it’s just gross. So, I encourage visitors of this little central coast gem to leave behind only footprints on the beach, instead of trash.

When I went last weekend, my friends and I just threw down a couple towels and lounged around in the sun for a few hours. It was much quieter than Avila Beach or Shell Beach on a weekend. Pirate’s Cove is a wonderful escape, and a laid-back, secluded beach perfect for a lazy afternoon– whether you’re clothed or baring it all!


Scuba Club Dive Trip to Santa Cruz Island

So Friday night, a bunch of us Cal Poly Scuba Club kids all piled into cars with our gear and headed south to Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara. We were on our way to an exciting weekend of boat diving from The Conception in the northern Channel Islands. After finding the right boat ( a couple of us accidentally checked in on the wrong boat, oops!) we loaded on our dive gear, picked out our bunks and decided to walk to State St. and get a bite to eat. Thai food definitely hit the spot. mmm yellow curry and jasmine rice….

my top bunk

We spent the night on the boat, which, by the way, was huge! There was a galley,  large back deck, staircase to a large shower room and two hot showers, bathrooms between the galley and the back deck, and bunks beneath the galley. The bunks were much larger than other bunks I had seen. I picked a top bunk, which came with a pillow and a blanket.

The boat left the dock around 4 am and arrived at Santa Cruz Island around 7 am. I woke up around 6:30 am from the constant rocking of the boat, (good thing I took Dramamine the night before!) a little unsure of exactly what time I needed to get up, eat, and get suited up for the first dive. Here’s a tip for future Truth Aquatics divers: When the boat engine stops, it is time to wake up.

The galley always had food for the hungry diver. There was a hot breakfast, various pastries, and fruit. Everyone on the boat had a labeled mug, and hot water was available all day along with tea, hot cocoa, and coffee.

The sun was shining brightly but the wind was bone chillingly cold. Everyone was freezing as we got ready and geared up to jump in the water. Our first dive spot was Fry’s on the inner side of Santa Cruz. The water was worse than the windy surface! It was a nippy 49 degrees underwater, but there was life everywhere. While the visibility wasn’t at its best (only about 10-15 feet or so), the kelp forest was beautiful and the sunlight sparkling through the kelp made the dive magical.

Odd as it sounds, I saw my very first jellyfish underwater. I’ve seen them plenty of times washed up on the beaches, but underwater jellyfish are majestic, graceful creatures.

The Conception

The site was so good that we decided to do our second dive at Fry’s too. After a quick break of running to the hot showers and warming our numb toes, we jumped back into the water. Once again, we were not disappointed. My favorite part of the dives was when we would swim through kelp and the water would suddenly be dark from the thick kelp on the surface. Then, a few seconds later, sunlight would stream through and light up the water once again.

gharibaldi and other fish say hello to the divers

In between dives, we had the unique experience of witnessing a bald eagle perched on the cliffs above us. It was just sitting proudly, watching the happenings below. When the bald eagle flew away, I could see what looked like blue tags on his wings. It was just a reminder of how rare a sighting like that is. Santa Cruz island is home to an incredible group of animals.

After a delicious lunch of ribs, mashed potatoes, peas and corn, we moved to one last dive site. This site was a tad warmer than the other site, but we stayed shallow where there was more fish, and for the hunters, more opportunity for a good catch. It was teeming with gharibaldi, perch, lobster, and many starfish, urchins, and nudibranchs covering the rocks beneath the kelp.

lots of wind makes for choppy water

Coming back to Santa Barbara was the hard part. The wind was so strong that there were swells of 8 to 10 feet splashing on the boat and rocking it around.We all sat on the back deck for a while, and eventually the constant rocking caused a few to run to the side of the boat. It was quite an adventure getting home! Four hours of rocking back and forth up and down massive waves made me appreciate solid ground.

It was a wonderful weekend for diving!

The northern Channel Islands: an aquatic escape close to home

I love riding the train up and down the California coast. After grabbing an ocean facing window seat, I can sit back and enjoy the spectacular view for hours. One of my favorite parts of the trip is from Ventura up through Santa Barbara, where, on a good day, I can look out over the sparkling ocean and see some of the Channel Islands. Most of the time I see Anacapa and Santa Cruz, but there are eight islands total, four located just off the central coast!

The four northern Channel Islands

Anacapa, Santa Cruz Island, Santa Rosa Island, and San Miguel Island (listed in order from south to north) and shown at left are the four  islands located a few miles off the central California coast. These islands are totally remote, and there is no transportation to the islands other than by private boats. You can book boats to the islands from Santa Barbara, Ventura, or Oxnard. On the islands, the only mode of transportation available are kayaks, and walking/hiking. They are all surrounded by preserved waters and part of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Santa Cruz is about an hour boat ride from Ventura, and the largest and most accessible island from the central coast.

So what exactly can someone do on the islands? Popular activities include hiking, backpacking, camping, kayaking, and my personal favorite, scuba diving. If you go to Santa Cruz Island and you are a kayak enthusiast, be sure to visit the world’s deepest and largest sea cave, Painted Cave.

Painted Cave at Santa Cruz; photo by mikebaird

The most popular places to kayak are near Scorpion Beach. The water is home to a diverse animal life, and water entry is easy on the beach. Note, though, that these waters are unpredictable, and can be dangerous, so to ensure a more safe and enjoyable kayaking experience, you can kayak with an authorized park guide. As for San Miguel and Santa Rosa, sea kayaking there is for skilled kayakers prepared for hazardous conditions. To get kayaks to the island, contact the boating companies. Most will carry kayaks to the islands for an extra fee. For more information regarding weather, contact the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary’s Internet Weather Kiosk.

While I have yet to set foot on the northern Channel Islands, I know the waters well. That is, I know the under waters well. Scuba diving here is absolutely spectacular. The water is clear and the kelp forests are teeming with life. Lobster diving is popular in the unprotected areas, especially at Santa Cruz. When I go diving here, I love booking with Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara. They have three boats, Truth, Vision, and Conception.

Truth Aquatics' Fleet, from the Truth Aquatics website

Their boats are designed just for diving, and the while the crew takes care of you with delicious food and free tank fills, the Channel Islands waters provide the rest. I have seen bat rays, nudibranchs, horn sharks, octopus, dolphins, lobsters, sea lions, and a colorful array of fish swimming around rocky pillars in between a graceful backdrop of kelp. I have never surfaced from a dive disappointed. Some of the best spots (conditions permitting) are San Pedro Point, Little Scorpion (where I did my certification dive!), and Three Sisters on the backside of Santa Cruz. These dives were all relatively shallow (40-60 ft) and were absolutely breathtaking.

The waters of the Channel Islands are home to a beautiful group of marine life, so jump in and see what you can find! Don’t forget your camera!

Happy islanding!

scuba diving central coast

The waters along the central coast are not just for kayaking or going to the beach. Scuba diving is a popular activity and a unique way of exploring the ocean.

I love scuba diving the central coast because it offers an aquarium view with fish swimming through forests of swaying kelp. The only difference is that there is no glass window. You are a vulnerable visitor in the midst of wild, unpredictable nature.

scuba diver

For those just beginning scuba diving, there are Sports Chalets further south (in the Ventura area) that offer free introductory classes the first Saturday of the month. All you have to do is fill out a simple form before you get started. In this course, a certified instructor reviews the basic rules of scuba safety, the components of scuba equipment and how to use the equipment. After the quick introductory lesson, you jump in the pool and try scuba diving with all the gear on! When I went, they had hula hoops and underwater toys set up in the pool to play around in. It’s a fun, free way to see if scuba diving is an activity you want to take up.

Once you decide to “jump in the water,” you need to take a scuba certification course and get the necessary equipment. There are two major scuba certification agencies, SSI and PADI. As a PADI certified diver, I recommend going with this agency.

There are lots of places to rent or buy equipment from and get your certification from. Of course, Sports Chalet is always an inexpensive price, but I have found that the best quality equipment and service is found at the small scuba shops.

If you live near…


try Dive and Sport


try Santa Barbara Aquatics Inc.


try Ocean Sports of Lompoc

Pismo Beach:

try Pismo Beach Dive Shop

San Luis Obispo:

try Depth Perceptions

Morro Bay:

try SloDivers (note though, that they only offer diving, not instructor courses)


try Aquarius Dive Shop

There are also many levels of scuba certification, starting with Open Water Certification.

After Open Water, you can go on to get Advanced Open Water, Rescue Diver, and Divemaster. There are also many specialty courses offered with PADI.

Happy diving!