For hundreds of thousands of San Diegans, the Pacific Ocean is a pulsing, vibrant backdrop for our lives. It’s our watery backyard. The progenitor of cool sea breezes. A seemingly limitless source of our seafood. And an unconscious inspiration for our thoughts and dreams.
Some of us are lucky enough to live at its shore. We awaken each morning to its rushing, crashing waves and slumber each eve to its lapping tide lullaby. Others work near its sandy beaches. And many more commune with this oldest of oceans when we swim, surf, scuba, or simply walk hand-in-hand along its shoreline to watch the grunion spawn by the light of the full moon.
Because the Pacific is so ubiquitous in our lives, we often forget that most Americans do not share our great kismet. They are miles inland, perhaps cuddled between mountains, nestled in mega-urban high-rises, or feeling inconsequential amid acres of look-alike desert plains.
We may go about our lives not quite understanding our own instinctual draw — an ancient, embryonic connection — with this ocean. John F. Kennedy once said in a speech to the America’s Cup crews, “…all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean.… We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.”
The Way We — and Our Beach — Were
Palmer Hughes had the enviable fortune to live in an oceanfront home on La Jolla’s Marine Street for nearly three decades. While he has fond memories of beach life, he notes that beach living in La Jolla has changed.
“I grew up in a beachside home. September was always the best month because all the tourists would be gone, and you’d have the beach to yourself. In the ’60s, there were only about 10,000 to 12,000 people in La Jolla. Everybody knew each other. You didn’t have to lock your doors. People were a lot friendlier. Scuba divers would leave their gear at the side of our house. And when they’d retrieve it, they’d leave us abalone and lobster as a thank-you payment.
“Back then, you didn’t have to be extremely wealthy to live there. It was extremely middle class. La Jolla had small markets instead of the chichi shops. There was money, but it wasn’t flaunted like it is now.
“You could go out to the beach on any day and see only maybe 10 to 20 people there. Today, you might see 50 to 100 people. And where the seals are now, there weren’t any seals — it was a children’s beach. The water was very shallow and crystal clear. Parents would take their young children there.
“Further [south], where the old Scripps Hospital was on Prospect Street, there was a great diving beach. South of there, the Marine Street beach had only two accesses: one on Marine Street and one on Sea Lane. Understand that there weren’t any apartment buildings back then, only sand dunes, cliffs, and shale. It was much nicer then.
“La Jolla Shores, that’s where the kids had to go. We’d grab a hamburger, then do some rafting. Back then, Scripps would let us fish off the pier. You could even be a junior oceanographer and attend the meetings.
“I lived at the house until about four years ago. I could take my kayak down to the beach or after work I could swim in the ocean. The beach changed all the time. One day it would be all sand, the next day it would be all rock. I’d watch the waves rear up and crash on the beach. The power of the ocean is wild.
“From the Marine Street beach, I saw lots of small boats get crashed on the rocks. I saw sailboats go down. I saw people drown, and I saw people get pulled out of the water with broken arms and legs.
“There’s no slope at this beach, like in L.A. Here, you walk out ten feet and you’re over your head.
“There were drawbacks about living there too. People would come to the beach at 3:00 a.m. drunk, and they’d want to build a fire by your house. You’d tell them to be quiet and they’d want to throw a bottle at your window. When the grunion ran at 4:00 a.m., you’d hear people yelling, ‘Hey, I got one!’
“The lots for those [beachside] houses are very small too. The houses along Camino de la Costa take up their whole lots. Today, there’s not a house there that’s under $2 million. I know a guy, he bought a house there after he saw it in Town & Country magazine. He’s really wealthy. Now ceos buy their houses there.
“About 15 years ago with El Niño, the waves were taking rocks the size of typewriters and putting them on our deck. We just threw a chain-link fence over the rocks and paved over it to make an instant seawall.
“In more recent years, there were gangs coming to the beach. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of money in La Jolla, and some people without money are going to want to steal it. You could get shot on the beach and no one might hear it because it’s so noisy. About seven years ago, by my house, about 200 kids were there, having fights, and someone would get knifed. There are a lot more burglar alarms, walls, and fences installed in the area over the last ten years, and more police patrolling now. Things have improved since they put lifeguards on the beach and banned alcohol. It’s more of a family scene now.
“When you live on the beach, it’s like living on a sailboat, because everything rusts in a year. Your place needs more maintenance than you’d believe. Just about any metal will rust. Even aluminum. Unless you’ve got brass. But hinges, nails, screws — you have to galvanize everything. If you keep your car out, it’ll rust too. If you put varnish on a handrail, in about two years it’ll be gone.