At 13 of the nation's greatest playgrounds that you've never heard of, outdoor magic and adventure are ripe for discovery.


Anacapa Island sits 14 miles off the coast of gridlocked Southern California and, well, you pick your number of worlds away. Today at the landing dock - merely a concrete slab near the foot of the island's sheer guano-stained cliffs - large waves surge against the base of the cliffs, blowing dragon's-breath mist out of various caverns. It is a lovely and hypnotic sight, the rise and fall of the ocean's skein like a slumbering giant, but it is problematic if you are about to hop into the Pacific hauling camera gear and 350 feet of video and audio cable.

Dave Stoltz grins at cameraman Bill Faulkner and diver-­narrator Andrea Moe. Through the miracle of neoprene and modern technology, the three divers will soon enthrall more than 60 fifth graders, though at the moment they are more concerned with the surging seas.

"If you start getting that sucking feeling when a set is coming in, get to the bottom," advises Stoltz, one of the creators of the underwater video program that's conducted three times a week, for the curious of all ages, throughout the entire summer here on Anacapa. "Let's have a good show and no one gets hurt."

Thirty feet above the divers, on a second landing, naturalist Debra­ Herring preps the schoolkids seated on benches in front of three dark television screens.

"Anything you want to know about a kelp forest, just ask," says Herring. "But remember, while you're asking your question, the diver­ is holding her breath because she can't hear you over the bubbles. So ask your question in a timely fashion."

Suddenly the screens fill with smoky blue; thick stalks of kelp sway as if in a syrupy breeze. The kelp is everywhere; it's as if Jack has turned to cultivating beanstalks. Moe appears, and as the camera pans the underwater forest, so, too, do a brilliant orange kelp snail, a red sea urchin, a stoic kelp bass, an enormous lobster, and a sea star, toppling end over end in the surge. At first, the fifth graders absorb this in silence - the oddity of being underwater without being underwater - and then the questions begin.

"What kind of fish is that?"

"Where are the lobster's eyes?"

"What's the difference between a starfish and a sea star?"

"Is SpongeBob down there?"

If he is, he's holding onto his square pants for dear life. Yet, despite the tough conditions, for 30 minutes Faulkner's fish-eye lens and Moe's voice - answering the children's questions, pointing out creatures surreal and lovely - free the sea's magic from its traditional bonds.

When the show ends, Herring beams at the kids.

"Bet you never thought you were going to get to hike through the kelp forest," she says.