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KAYAKING : Waves and Caves : Tours of Santa Cruz and Anacapa islands give visitors a chance to see nature's handiwork in an unspoiled setting.

July 25, 1991|KEN McALPINE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The fissure is narrow, a crack into which seawater pours with a sigh. Beyond the opening it is dark. Which doesn't stop Warren Glaser from poking the end of his kayak into the cave mouth with unconcealed glee.

"There are a lot of beautiful places on Earth, but there aren't too many places as beautiful as this," says Glaser, sliding into the cave, his voice echoing back. "This is the work of a master architect."

Indeed. Inside it is cool and cathedral quiet. The darkness isn't darkness at all, but a smoky light revealing cave walls that are slick-wet and the color of clay. Squeezing through the narrow passage, the water surges gently, slapping at the walls, lifting, then dropping to reveal dripping pincushions of barnacles. Shafts of light, dogged offshoots from the sun burning down on Santa Cruz Island, worm through cracks in the rock and drift up through the water. Wrapped in cave gloom, the water appears to glow. One of the kayakers following Glaser is overwhelmed. Glaser grins. There is better yet to come.

"Keep your pants on," he says. "We're only holding hands now."

For the past two summers Glaser has led kayaking expeditions around and in Santa Cruz and Anacapa islands, exploring dozens of caves gouged from the island cliffs by pounding surf. Some of the caves are well-known. Painted Cave, a massive undercut on the north side of Santa Cruz, is the largest sea cave in the world. Other caves are more obscure but to some people, of equal consequence.

Church, for instance. Tucked on Anacapa's north side, the cave is small enough to miss, but big enough to house an intimate, floating wedding party. Glaser and wife Ellen were married there in 1985. Don't look for it on a map. The name is Glaser's.

Glaser pushes out of the cave and into the sunlight. He watches as the two kayakers accompanying him exit the cave. From where he sits there are no visible signs of civilization. Above the cave entrance, pelicans stand in a flood of guano. Glaser surveys the pelicans. The pelicans pick at themselves stoically.

"If you let your imagination run wild," says Glaser, "it's not difficult to think of yourself as the only man out here."

For several years Glaser did explore the islands alone and with small groups of friends. A history teacher at Ojai's Nordhoff High School and an unabashed ocean junkie, Glaser first learned to kayak 10 years ago. Poking about the islands further confirmed his love for the sport. A shrewd man, Glaser decided to combine business with pleasure. He started OAARS. An acronym for Outdoor and Aquatic Recreation Specialists, what his Ventura business really spells is a working holiday for Glaser.

"Why find a real job when you can play?" he says.

Glaser and troupe cruise the island's fringe. Gulls nest in nooks along the sheer cliff face, proving that their indiscriminate taste extends beyond food to housing. A kaleidoscope of colors slide past beneath the kayaks. Purple urchins, silver bait fish, the orange glint of garibaldi--a thuggish fish with a bump on its noggin and a fearless attitude, possibly attributable to its protected status as California's state fish.

The caves contain life as well. Birds and bats hide in lees. One cave is home to a family of spotted harbor seals. Bug-eyed and mottled, they poke their heads above the surface, regarding the kayaks with wary interest.

On this particular trip, seals turn out to be the prime attraction. Nature can, however, rear its head in a big way. Once, off the backside of Anacapa, Glaser and fellow kayakers found themselves 20 yards from a pod of killer whales. By Glaser's estimate the dorsal fin on one of the larger males rose over six feet above the water's surface. The whales kept their distance and eventually disappeared.

Powerful ocean swells can also make things exciting, especially inside the caves where the surge moves in and out with all the subtlety of a sailor on shore leave. On commercial trips Glaser plays it safe. If the swell is up, certain caves are off limits. Apparently he has less concern for his own skin, some of which can be found plastered on many a cave wall.

"I've left a piece of me and pieces of boats in every cave on these islands," says Glaser, who relishes the thrill of being blasted through the caves at warp speed. "When it gets rough some of these caves can be a real 'E' ticket ride."

Most days, like this one, offer fewer challenges. Glaser's clients have been as young as 9 and as old as 73. The kayaks, scuppers, are easily managed. All that is required is an appetite for adventure. And $90. With that, Glaser provides transportation to the islands, kayaks and lunch for a trip that lasts about four hours.

Glaser bobs in the water, sunshine splashing around him. He nods toward the horizon and shakes his head.

"A lot of people look out here from the mainland and don't think anything of it," he says. "They don't know what they've got here."

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