There is a sea cave for every paddler who wants to explore one. You just have to find the right cave, at the right time and sea state while keeping within your skill level. Some sea caves can be enchanting water fairy grottos filled with beauty. Others will be fierce and dangerous, as if it were the lair of the Mo'o (the Hawaiian sea & water fall monster). Many caves are a little bit of the best of both.
Sea caves can range from benign curiosities to highly dangerous environments and every thing between. How safe or hazardous a sea cave may be is determined by the changing, and sometimes unpredictable, water conditions and to some degree the size, shape and orientation of the cave itself. Approach any cave (or arch) with caution and common sense.
Sea Cave Safety & Paddling Prerequisites
Most paddlers should only venture into sea caves during calm flat-water conditions. Beginners should only enter as far as natural light permits, in sight of the opening, and ready for a quick exit. Calm water caves will give you the luxury to enjoy and photograph a unique space. Those who wish to challenge themselves further, as well as beginners, should understand the principles below.
Surf zone and rock garden skills are very valuable in the sea cave environment. You will also need excellent bracing skills and the ability to Eskimo roll is highly useful. (Knee Straps needed for SOT & inflatable kayaks.) There will be little time and space for deep-water re-entry in a sea cave, let alone sit-in-side self-rescue.
Carefully study the cave and the effect of wave swell before entering is necessary. Inside caves swells can grow to be much larger than outside waves due to the constrained space. They often break forcefully in the end of the cave and come right back out, just as powerful, or more so, as when they went in, in some cases showering paddlers with blinding spray. Watch, wait, proceed, and repeat as necessary.
Waves reflect off the many walls inside a cave, creating waves from as many directions as there are vertical surfaces in that cave. When two reflected waves meet they combine their height, doubling (tripling if 3 meet), in clapotis wave formations. Reflected waves will create a confused and unpredictable water surface, needing constant assessment and quick reactions. It is exactly this kind of "washing machine" action that makes sea caves so much fun.
The changing tide can have dramatic effects on the personality of a sea cave. The difference of a few feet in water level can change a subterranean surf zone into gentle swells in just a few hours, or vise-versa. Some caves will be coverd completely at high tide and can only be entered at low, or just the opposite. Shallow water, or a beach, in cave can become deep water with the changing tide. The height of the ceiling will also change as well.
Caves with tidal currents, or caves with flowing fresh waters can be very dangerous. White water river skills and rescue techniques are necessary. Strong currents can capsize and entrap unprepared paddlers.
"Team Kayaking" with an organized group formation will enhance safety. While going with a group is better than going alone, a group planning session before entering the cave is even better.
"Spotters" can be placed outside the cave to watch for incoming swell and other spotters placed to keep an eye on the action inside. Communication should be verbal and visual with all paddlers in eye and ear shot.
"Probes" would be those kayakers who enter the cave, in numbers small enough to allow for maneuvering and safety. Paddlers in the cave should keep a vigilant eye on the opening, watching for incoming swell and communications from their comrades.
A designated "safety boater" could be named to give aid. This way you will not have every one rush in at once to help a capsized kayaker. Take turns as needed to let everyone have a chance inside.
Proper equipment should be used. PFD (with whistle) and helmet are a must in all but the most calm of caves. Incoming swell can rapidly reduce the ceiling height down to mere feet, or less, underscoring the need for a helmet, among other hazards. In addition, paddling gloves and booties can provide protection to feet and hands from abrasive cave surfaces. While most folks will not need (or should not need) a flashlight, a headlamp will be more effective for peering into dark spaces, leaving hands free.
Your choice of kayak will likely be based on other purposes than sea caves. While any kayak can paddle into an easy going cave, each type of kayak will have its strength and weakness.
Inflatable kayaks can be used in flat-water caves with plenty of space, depth and minimal hazards.
Hard shell touring kayaks (sit-on and sit-in) are best suited for larger caves and calmer waters. Smaller and more maneuverable hard shell kayaks (sit-on and sit-in) can be applied to more difficult conditions.
In more challenging sea caves sit-on paddlers will have to be excellent with bracing stokes, due to the higher center of gravity in many models. Sit-in paddlers will have to have a bombproof roll. A self-rescue (or towing!) will be quite difficult in a technically challenging cave.
Plastic kayaks will handle the bumps and bangs in most cases, while there are some very strong composite boats as well. Some recreational kayaks (sit-in, sit-on & IK) are suited for only the calmest of the "friendly sea caves".
Sea caves are also the home of wildlife. Care must be taken to respect their needs. Birds and all sorts of sea creatures take refuge in caves and disturbing them can have ill effect on their well being. Remember that you are a visitor in their community. Sharks have been known to inhabit caves as well. As kayakers we likely never see them, nor provoke them. Be mindful of their presence however and avoid situations that may corner one.
Sea caves beckon to many paddlers in different ways. Some like the serine calm, and gently lapping waters of a shady cave. Others seek thrills and excitement in dark and turbulent waters. Essentially it is the curiosity in us and the desire to explore that brings us in.
Index To Kayak Caving - Provides links to all our articles, including those below, for the kayak caving enthusiast.
Sea Cave Basics by David Bunnell - Dave Bunnell has explored and surveyed over 500 sea caves, and written two books on them. Here he gives kayak cavers an overview with great photos and links to more information.
Basic Surfing Techniques - Contributed by the British Canoe Union Surf Committee. This is a beautifully done manual on surfing maneuvers Originally published at The Watershed-UK.
TopKayaker.Net's Surf Section - Visit all our surf articles for helpful advise.
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