Photo by Robert Burroughs
The most lurid harangue on drowning in the ocean that I ever heard issued from a young couple who were marshalling their children one morning at La Jolla Shores. “You kids haven’t been in the ocean before and you have to remember that it’s treacherous,” they lectured gloomily. “It isn’t like Lake Michigan back at home.” Their chronicle of perils was marvelous indeed.
First, one could step on a stingray, the father warned, as ominously as one might describe a land mine. His description of a Navy buddy who had once trod upon one conjured up visions of a cripple for life. Then the mother piped up with a story she’d heard about a swimmer who drifted too far out and almost didn’t make it back. And then the two chimed in together with tales about the drop-off at the continental shelf. (Pity the poor bather whose hapless feet stepped falsely, plunging him to unfathomable depths.) They continued with undertows, killer surf, and jellyfish, a veritable smorgasbord of fantastic oceanic death. Finally, they shooed their saucer-eyed children off to play.
With such misconceptions, it’s a wonder the ocean still draws newcomers. Of course, people do drown in the waters off San Diego each year. With 64 miles of coastline and at least that many different types of swimmers, it’s inconceivable to imagine no drownings. People also drown in their bathtubs, however, and the hazards of the sea aren’t much less predictable.
The biggest of these are riptides, a natural occurrence in the ocean. When surf crashes onto the shore, the energy-charged water has to go somewhere, so it travels along the beach until it finds a corridor through which it can rush back out to sea. Piers, rocks, uneven bottoms, and other factors create these corridors, and the water flowing out through them are the rips. Since the flow is faster than that outside of the corridor, swimming through a rip can vary from mildly difficult to impossible. Experienced swimmers know that by swimming parallel to the shore they can soon be out of the danger area, but riptides often panic the ocean neophyte. To further confuse things, some rips are permanent, or nearly so; but some can spring up suddenly and then disappear, while still others travel up and down the beach.
If you’re determined to drown, you should consider a factor even more critical than the natural conditions which can change from day to day: namely, whether or not the water is guarded. The vast majority of the people who retire to Davy Jones’ locker do so in untended areas (11 out of the 12 swimmers who drowned at San Diego city beaches in the last three years did so in unguarded sections). It’s legal to swim in just about all the water around San Diego (except for part of San Diego Bay, a few hundred feet off a few piers, and so on), but if you do get into trouble in an unguarded area, help won’t come unless some passerby notices you and summons the nearest lifeguard.
Considering these and other factors, some spots are more treacherous than others. The more or less permanent rips, for instance, ensnare the hapless swimmer on a regular basis. Submerged rocks, uneven bottoms, and the mouths of channels also cause special problems. There’s no intention to rank them, but the following coastal spots provide the likeliest bets for the average swimmer to take that last long plunge.
Oceanside Harbor Beach
Rip currents created by the jetties have dug small, underground channels through which the water flows strong and continuously. The turmoil also has dug holes and depressions. More than the usual number of rocks on the beach have accumulated the kind of sea life that makes for painful marine encounters, and city lifeguards say the natural currents tend to pull swimmers into the pier pilings. Since Harbor Beach is Oceanside’s most popular swimming area, this place keeps the city’s crew of lifeguards the busiest.
South Encinitas Beach, from about E to J Streets in Encinitas
This is one of the county’s only unguarded beach areas. County guards at Swami’s to the south can’t see any of it, nor can the state lifeguards to the north at Moonlight Beach. Numerous inshore reefs tend to make water conditions poor; surprises include traveling rips and an uneven bottom.
Del Mar, just west of the race track
While most of Del Mar’s beaches are sandy, this south-facing section changes suddenly to rock, and the fast transition catches many swimmers off-guard. In fact, the rocks form a number of jagged holes into which it’s easy to step, unsuspecting. Swimmers who get their feet caught in the underwater traps panic easily, and Del Mar lifeguards say over the years a number of horses caught in the surf zone have had to be killed. The rocky waters also contain a number of permanent, strong rips. The far southern end of Del Mar also tends to be hazardous.
The waters at Black’s are full of pitfalls. When San Diego City lifeguards formally rated the level of hazard to be found on the city’s 12 guarded beaches. Black’s topped the list by a comfortable margin. Although the guarded section is only 900 feet long. Black’s counts no less than six permanent riptides: one off Box Canyon, one off the beach raft (two old barges on the beach which emerge from the sand every winter), one at the north beach boundary, one at False Trail (below the radar station), one at Black Gold Road, and another about 50 yards south at South Blackgold Road. Even those who don’t swim at all have good reason to keep their eyes open in the water. Both the far south and far north ends of Black’s tend to have a higher than usual concentration of stingrays in the water, and though their touch won’t cripple you for life, the protein-based poison which they inject really hurts.
Children’s Pool (The Casa)
This little beach south of the end of La Jolla Boulevard ranked as the second most hazardous in the city lifeguards’ survey. A reef-pocket beach, it’s mostly used by divers who enjoy taking advantage of the beach’s five permanent rips: (one off Shell Beach behind 939 Coast Boulevard, one off the end of the wall which extends into the water, one at South Casa, one off Wipeout Beach, and a particularly strong one known as the Tile Roof Rip jutting off Hospital point, also known as Whale View Point or Point La Jolla. Off the point, one also can find a series of troughs running parallel to the beach in which divers commonly get tumbled. The beach also faces a number of exposed rock outcroppings, in all making it something less than kid’s play.
Goldfish Point, just east of the Cove and Boomer Beach
City lifeguards say the point has seen a number of messy accidents caused when the sparkling blue waters have seduced swimmers into diving off The Clam and onto the submerged rocks. Heavy surf has sculpted caves in the whole area just southeast of the point, and the breakers occasionally drive unsuspecting swimmers into the watery recesses. It can be frighteningly difficult to swim out again. Most spectacular, of course, is Emerald Cave under The Clam; swimmers can be driven in there, then walled in with water.
South Pacific Beach
The beach south of Crystal Pier also has five permanent rips, although they’re not as severe as The Casa’s. One can be found on the south side of the pier itself, and the others extend from the South PB lifeguard tower, off Thomas Street, just north of tower 8 and between numbers 7 and 8. The total effect led the lifeguards to rate this beach’s waters third most dangerous of the 12 guarded areas.
The entire area from the beginning of Sunset Cliffs south to the Navy’s property on Point Loma comprises mostly rock beaches, and the cliffs themselves contain two particularly treacherous sections. Garbage Beach, the area just south of Ladera Street, has an offshore reef which produces some great surfing when there’s a low tide and a good swell. However, the surf breaks far off the beach and rips are unusually long. City guards don’t regularly guard here, but they report making a lot of rescues. Inexperienced surfers are the usual victims.
The rocky beach just west of Osprey Street also boasts a reputation for treachery. •
The tide brings the surf in fast, and more than one would-be beachcomber has been trapped against the cliff face. Once stuck, the only way out is through the rock-studded water.
All of the city of Coronado’s beach area is subject to one notable hazard: probably the heaviest concentration of stingrays anywhere along San Diego’s coast. Lifeguards report having problems with as many as 15 in one day. Nowhere along the even beach is there any protection for the graceful creatures, so they tend to congregate in the surf zone, particularly right off the Hotel Del Coronado.
While most of Coronado’s beaches are tame, one quarter-mile strip just south of the North Island Navy base faces south and thus receives the full force of surf whipped up by New Zealand and Mexican storms. It’s not at all uncommon for surf to be three to four feet along most of the beach, while reaching five to six feet at the far north. With heavy surf go strong rips.
Almost all the drownings in Imperial Beach have occurred in the Tia Juana River mouth, where two full tides empty each day into the ocean. The currents dig giant holes into the sandy floor and riptides tend to be shockingly strong, particularly with a south to southwesterly swell and a very high descending tide. IB also has a permanent rip off Coronado Avenue with an irresistible name: The River of No Return, they call it.
Although the ocean -contains most of the swimming hazards around San Diego, one feature of Mission Bay can be treacherous. The bay waters run about three to four feet deep as far offshore as 20 to 25 yards, then they plunge suddenly to depths of seven to eight feet. (Similarly, the water bottom at the state beach in south San Diego Bay also slopes steeply.) The sudden drop-offs menace children for the most part, according to lifeguards attending both areas.
Considering the heavy swimming traffic in both the bay and ocean waters, it’s amazing there aren’t more saltwater catastrophes. But the very wealth of good swimming areas ties in with the good safety record, asserts Al Bruton, of the San Diego City lifeguard service: “People receive a lot of water exposure from an early age. As a result, they’re very water-conscious. It’s a water-oriented town.”