Liza Monroy is an author and freelance writer living in downtown Santa Cruz. Her most recent book is the essay collection “Seeing As Your Shoes Are Soon To Be On Fire” (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press). Her essays, articles and fiction have appeared in local and national publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, O, Newsweek, Longreads, Marie Claire, Catamaran, “The Best American Food Writing 2021" and elsewhere. She earned an MFA in Nonfiction from Columbia University in 2010 and previously taught writing at UC Santa Cruz. Visit her at lizamonroy.com.
Whether in a kayak or on a stand-up paddleboard, the waters just off Santa Cruz County are swimming with possibilities. Take it easy in the Yacht Harbor? Cruise around a wharf? Explore the wilds off the Westside? Venture to Shark Park and the Cement Ship? Lookout has you covered no matter what you choose.
The ocean is dubbed “vitamin sea” for a reason: space, flow state, and inner well-being are just a few benefits of time spent in the salty blue yonder. Scientist-author Wallace J. Nichols coined the term “Blue Mind” in his eponymous book, characterizing this-is-your-brain-on-water consciousness as “mildly meditative … characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.”
During a time when these qualities can be elusive, the ocean provides a way to harness them. Santa Cruz County’s waters offer countless epic exploration runs. Monterey Bay teems with life: sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions, pelicans, fish, even sharks and whales depending on the season. Stand-up paddleboarding or kayaking allows for a broader scope of exploration than beachcombing or the laser focus of surfing.
A SUP expedition between Capitola and Pleasure Point feels like a journey to an entirely different world, full of space and privacy. Traversing the kelp beds, saltwater scent permeates the air. Mellow sunlight filters through a mist of fog and leftover wildfire smoke. The ocean is in constant motion: waves crash on cliffs, tides rise and fall, otters slap water with their tails (upon later learning it’s a startle reaction, I hoped I hadn’t approached too close). In spite of all this movement, a sense of pervasive stillness and of incomparable calm prove that “Blue Mind” is real.
Whether you’re a modern Jacques Cousteau or totally new to aquatic endeavor, here’s how to plan your own adventure.
Choose your vessel
To kayak or to SUP, that is the question. Trudie Ransom, proprietor of Santa Cruz Harbor-based SUP Shack, says that most of her clients arrive knowing which craft they crave. Both are fun, easy activities to learn in a day, but there are some points to consider in deciding.
To cover longer distances, especially if you’re more comfortable seated, there’s no legwork required to know it’s kayaking for the win. For a full-body workout and broader viewfinder, SUP emerges victorious. (Prepare to meet your stabilizers like never before.) A SUP is more transportable and easier to hop back on if you enter the water. Ransom, who rents both, specializes in particularly stable SUPs: “I like the big jumbo boards. It’s an easy sport and we make it easy for you.”
While SUP is trendier and kayak is classic, either choice brings you the link among meditation, exercise and connection to the ocean.
Learning and safety
Ransom offers lessons in her adjacent “learning lagoon,” but points out that “people mostly have an adventurous nature and want to go out on solo explorations.” YouTube has ample advice on everything from basic paddling to pushing back out if caught in whitewater. Of course, if you’re nervous or have any doubts, an in-person lesson or tour can go a long way toward conquering fear and gaining confidence in the ocean.
The primary safety advice, according to Santa Cruz surf and Pilates-for-board sports instructor Emile Hawley, who has taught locally for over a decade, is “stand-up paddleboarders and kayaks stay out of surf zones. It’s a hazard. Imagine being out there as a surfer with a shovel.”
Hawley recommends beginners launch at the harbor, Capitola and Cowell’s, our green-circle routes. Go out paddling against the west-to-east current for easier traveling with the current’s assist on return. And be aware of seals asleep in the kelp beds! (On a recent outing I nearly pushed one with my paddle, startling me out of “blue mind” state. “Sorry, buddy,” I reflexively blurted. Fortunately, the seal dozed on.)
Eastside: Capitola to harbor
The harbor, centrally located between Santa Cruz’s east and west sides, is an ideal point of departure or destination in itself. It’s “a beautiful, safe place for first timers,” Ransom says. “We’re lucky we’ve got a resident family of harbor seals. Sometimes we have sea otters. Four years ago we had a dolphin that kept coming into the harbor.”
Launching at Capitola, from the beach or the pier, travel west along the residential Opal Cliffs neighborhood, where you glimpse many kelp beds and a few secret beaches accessible only by SUP or kayak during high tide. Continuing westward, Jack O’Neill’s green house perches clifftop at 38th Avenue. Be sure to stay outside the surf zones in the heart of Pleasure Point. Traveling around Soquel Point leads along stretches of sandy beachfront up to the harbor and the landmark Walton Lighthouse on the eastern end of Seabright Beach.
Westside: Seabright to Natural Bridges
Among the most popular paddle-and-kayak routes is the Santa Cruz Wharf and Cowell’s, with resplendent Boardwalk views and close-up encounters with cacophonous sea lions. Warning: The smell of French fries and calamari wafting down from restaurants on the wharf can raise the appetite of a paddler. You can always dash up for a snack.
To the west of the wharf, the surfer statue stands on West Cliff, and there are kelp beds for observing marine life. Steamer Lane/Lighthouse Point is the gateway to wilder Westside waters. Avoid the advanced surf spot at “the Lane” unless it’s completely flat, catching views of Seal Rock and Its Beach (aka “dog beach”). This jaunt can continue along West Cliff all the way to Natural Bridges State Beach.
South of Capitola to Cement Ship: “Shark Park”
Great whites migrate along the Central California coast during autumn months, aka “Sharktober.” From Capitola, head toward New Brighton State Beach (where the parking lot and SUP/kayak rental were closed at press time due to COVID-19). Rio Del Mar and Seacliff State Beach, site of the S.S. Palo Alto, “the cement ship,” allow you to shark-spot in places “where the water is really deep and then gets more shallow,” Hawley says. Though the risk of a shark attack is low, he adds, while navigating sharkey waters, “be where there are other people, avoid sunrise and sunset, and be confident in the water.”
North of town
“In town is inside the bay; out of town is the wild ocean,” Hawley says. Davenport Landing has a channel, “so you can launch in peace.” So does Scott Creek. Check conditions and be prepared to carry in equipment.
No matter your chosen route, a SUP or kayak exploration proves that one of the best things about Santa Cruz is the ocean, and one of the best things to do is explore it. After gaining new perspectives, more exercise than you realize at the time, and an otter friend or two, you emerge feeling as if you’ve crossed oceans, even stepped outside of time, simply by traversing a small portion of the Monterey Bay.
Santa Cruz Wharf, Cowell’s, Westside
Venture Quest Kayaking
Santa Cruz Wharf
Club Ed (SUP only)
Harbor, Capitola, Eastside
Santa Cruz Harbor
413 Lake Ave.
Santa Cruz, CA 95062
Capitola Beach Company – SUP
131 Monterey Ave.
Capitola, CA 95010
Capitola Surf & Paddle
208 San Jose Ave.Capitola, CA 95010
Capitola Boat & Bait
Kayaks & SUP on the Capitola Wharf
Eskape Sea Kayaking (lessons and tours)
740 30th Ave. # 117
Santa Cruz, CA 95062
Buy your own
Covewater Paddle Surf
(not located near a beach so you’ll have to drive your own equipment)
726 Water St.
Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Pilates conditioning for board and paddle sports / lessons