Summer is the season for azure waves and golden-sand beaches, and vacations are the chance to veer off life's beaten path. Combine both by plunging into a new seaside sport—pedal a hydrobike, float on a paddleboard, snorkel with sea creatures, learn how to sail, or master your surfing pop-up. Your next great aquatic adventure awaits in California’s cool, soothing Pacific Ocean, so check out these seven ways to get your feet wet while expanding your horizons:
California has movie-set beaches and endless sunny skies, but some of its most amazing wonders lie just below the ocean waves. Buy or rent a snorkel, goggles, and swim fins (flippers), and let the sea reveal its treasures. In San Diego, snorkeling in La Jolla Cove is like swimming in a giant aquarium filled with sea urchins, bat rays, barracuda, and gentle leopard sharks. On Laguna Beach's shoreline, flip your flippers around Shaw's Cove or Diver's Cove and spot a huge variety of sea life remarkably close to shore. Catalina Island is also top-notch for snorkeling, its shoreline teeming with bright orange garibaldis, kelp bass, rockfish, and eels. Get acquainted with the marine life at Casino Point Dive Park or Lover's Cove.
Zip up your wetsuit, grab your board, and get ready to conquer the curling offshore waves. Surfing has a steeper learning curve than many water sports, but it also has the biggest cool factor. In Surf City USA, also known as Huntington Beach, a few lessons at Corky Carroll’s Surf School will get you out there catching waves. Beginners can also settle into some sets at Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz, where the waves are less than four feet high and perfect for learning (check out Surf School Santa Cruz). Or practice your pop-up at Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas in north San Diego County. The waves break close to shore, so you don't have to exhaust yourself paddling out. If you’d like to pick up some pointers by watching the pros, the Mavericks Surfing Competition happens every fall at that famed set of breaks just north of Half Moon Bay on The San Francisco Peninsula.
The best part of sea kayaking is how seamlessly the sport blends with the ocean. With only the gentle sound of your paddles breaking the water surface, you glide along at eye level with playful harbor seals and other wildlife. Beginner-friendly guided tours are offered almost everywhere along the California coast: Santa Barbara Adventure Company will guide you through the crystal-clear waters and otherworldly kelp forests of Santa Cruz Island at Channel Islands National Park or take you paddling along the rugged Gaviota shoreline. Central Coast Kayaks escorts novice boaters past Shell Beach's arches, rock gardens, and tide pools that can only be seen by paddling. In Mendocino, float around the spectacular sea caves at Van Damme State Park, or tour through Fort Bragg's Noyo Harbor and into the wild Pacific with Liquid Fusion Kayaking. Cap off a trip to the Redwood Coast with an unforgettable kayak tour that circles the historic Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City.
The beauty of stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is its simplicity. You stand on a wide, buoyant, stable board and propel yourself across the water with one long paddle. The sport offers a great core workout with minimal equipment, and you can learn the basics on your first session. Newbies should start out in the gentle waters of California's marinas, harbors, and estuaries. Rent a SUP and test out your balance at Santa Barbara Harbor, Santa Cruz Harbor, Dana Point Harbor, or the Carlsbad Lagoon. For an unforgettable experience, join a nighttime tour with Pirate Coast Paddle in Newport Beach. You'll paddle out on a board lit up with LED lights as hundreds of tiny fish gather around your SUP, attracted by the glow. Do-it-yourselfers can rent an LED-lit paddleboard and explore the calm evening waters at Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort.
At first look, hydrobiking may look a little campy, but who said water sports had to be serious? An easy workout that's undeniably fun, hydrobiking is just like riding a bike. In place of wheels, a hydrobike has stable pontoons that float on the water. Pedaling across gentle harbor or marina waters is so easy and relaxing, you might want to bring along your earbuds, some tunes, and your favorite summer beverage (most models have cup holders). Rent one by the hour at Hydrobikes SD in San Diego's Mission Bay, in Foster City south of San Francisco, in Long Beach Harbor, or at Moss Landing near Monterey.
Grab your friends or kids and score some airtime on a parasail flight high above the ocean. Parasailing is exhilarating, but not scary, and scores a big zero on the sweat meter. You sit in a seat attached to a boat stern by a long, retractable line. When the boat accelerates, a giant parachute lifts you skyward, and you soar above the ocean. Cheap thrills? Sure, but nobody's judging. You'll be amazed at the sight of your feet dangling in empty air 600 feet above the water, and you get to share the fun with a friend or two (most companies fly two or three people at a time). In Dana Point, soar above Doheny State Beach with Dana Point Parasail. In Newport Beach, Long Beach, and Catalina Island, California Parasail will take you up, up and away. Santa Barbara Parasail takes the experience one step farther: You'll soar even higher (up to 1,000 feet), and then the boat driver will lower your parachute so you can dip your feet in the water.
Sure, you can just kick back on a sunset catamaran cruise from almost any harbor in California, but learning to sail your own watercraft is a great way to stretch your limits and boost your confidence. Mastering the time-honored art of sailing can take a lifetime, but you can learn the basics pretty fast. Check out one of the American Sailing Association's certified schools along the California coast, including Modern Sailing or Spinnaker Sailing in San Francisco Bay, Bluewater Sailing in Marina Del Rey, Harbor Sailboats in San Diego, and Santa Barbara Sailing Center.