Ebb tide. My calendar is packed, but I head down to the beach anyway, camera in tow.
At high tide, Goff Island is mostly underwater. The ocean heaves and swells, bursting into plumes of frothy waves as it crashes against its rocky edges. But when the water recedes again, hidden treasures come into view. I want to see them, name them, learn how these tiny creatures navigate their pocket-shaped homes.
Sunlight pierces the murky tide pools, spotlighting their strange and beautiful inhabitants. Sea anemones flourish in these underwater gardens, as do sea lettuces and coralline algae.
Snails graze on gently swaying seaweed, blissfully unaware of the predators that lurk in narrow crevasses, waiting for the just-right moment to pounce.
Shell fragments bear silent testimony to this oft-repeated drama, as do the oxygen bubbles, slowly rising to the surface. Here, a mirror image of the universe itself: a microcosm of constant change and perpetual motion, in which everything is interconnected.
I straddle the channel where the harbor seals haul out at mid-tide, pivot toward the shoreline and refocus.
Such an aha moment, to see the shoreline from the pinnipeds’ vantage point!
I don’t suppose the jagged rocks are any big deal—if you’re cushioned with blubber, that is.
But hmmm…Where do the tide pool creatures go, when they’re displaced at mid-tide by these larger animals? We’re dealing with water damage at my house, so I’ll have to save that question for another day.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense. (Robert Frost, Mending Wall)
I visited Children’s Pool Beach in La Jolla this past Tuesday–what an eye-opening, heart-expanding trip!
This charming little enclave was a well-intentioned, but perhaps shortsighted, gift to the people of San Diego, back in 1931. In funding this project, Ellen Browning Scripps brought a personal dream to fruition: a protected beach for children, the elderly, and “those handicapped in life’s game.”
Ellen didn’t own the property, mind you. She just laid out the cash for the 330-foot, crescent-shaped concrete wall that hugs the rocky shoreline.
Then as now, visitors strolled the length of the breakwater, snapping photos of the sweeping panoramic views and peeking into the tide pools below [video].
Years passed. Slowly but surely, the once-pristine swimming hole was filled with drifting sand.
It eventually transformed itself into an idyllic hangout…for harbor seals.
The horseshoe-shaped inlet (also known as Casa Beach) is perfectly suited to the pinniped lifestyle. They bask in year-round sunshine, mate, and give swimming lessons to their newborn pups.
Check out the scene, in this live-action video.
Seal pups are born in the sand, nurse within minutes, and take their first swimming lessons within a few hours.
Over the next few weeks, they’ll lose their downy fur and gain their independence.
But in the meantime, the breakwater helps protect them from predators and turbulent seas.
In this peaceable kingdom, sea birds and marine mammals find ways to co-exist, with only an occasional squabble.
No surprise, the harbor seal pups are a major draw. In fact, they helped turn Children’s Beach into a major tourist attraction.
Just look at this mama seal being shadowed by her pup. Postcard material, don’t you think? Hashtag: #HarborSealsofInstagram
But not everyone sees these changes as a good thing. Locals pinch their noses and point to the mess. No, not the half-eaten sandwiches and disposable diapers, buried in the sand by thoughtless visitors. Seal poop, plopped on the rocks and in the water. “It leaves behind an ungodly stench,” business owners harrumph, especially in the summer.
Fishermen are afraid of losing out to the seals, who forage along this increasingly depleted coastline.
And swimmers complain that they’re coming face-to-muzzle with playful (or unhappy) pinnipeds. In a territorial battle, both parties can be aggressive and unpredictable.
Deep dive: Should the beach be permanently designated as a marine mammal sanctuary, or should it be returned to its pristine (if man-made) state?
The controversy has landed in the courts, many times over. Strongly held views sometimes lead to violent skirmishes. It’s hard to accommodate everyone, but thanks to a recent ordinance, the pocket beach is off-limits to humans from Dec. 15 to May 15 (aka pupping season)–mainly in response to documented cases of seal harassment.
The Coastal Commission sided with city politicians, all of whom were mainly concerned that mama harbor seals might get frightened during pupping season and “flush” (stampede) into the water. Newborn seals get trampled, or separated in the shuffle. There’s perhaps nothing more wrenching than a frantic, hungry baby that’s crying for its mama.
Some people think humans and pinnipeds should be able to interact with one another in peace. With respect to that viewpoint, the adjacent beach is open to the public, all year long. Since harbor seals also frequent this beach, warning signs are posted at the entrance and on the steps leading down to the water.
But “shared use” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.
(I’m told that this beach is staffed by park rangers and lifeguards. But I didn’t see anyone patrolling the area.)
Some people would be happier if the harbor seals never set their flippers on Children’s Pool Beach, ever again. But I have a feeling they’re swimming against the tide.
P.S. I took these photographs on the seawall and walkways that surround Children’s Pool, and (where noted) above the adjacent beach. I used a zoom lens, and at no time did I ever venture close to the harbor seals.
Ahoy, me hearties! Gather ‘round, and I’ll tell ye about my jolly adventures at Victoria Beach, and a fantastical place we locals call Pirate Tower…
I traveled on foot with a merry band of tide pool docents, in search of sea stars and other ocean treasures. We met at Goff Island (near the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, California) and headed north. Not a strenuous hike, by any means, and what about that view???
When we reached the north end of Victoria Beach, we ventured into a small cove. Sugarloaf Point–magical name, don’t you think?
Like a turret on a storybook castle, a 60-foot-tall concrete structure rises from the rocky shoreline, tilted ever so slightly toward the affluent neighborhood on the bluffs.
Weather-worn roof shingles. Rusted metal grates. Tiny portals and a spiral staircase, battered by sea spray and never-ending tides. There’s an oversized entrance, too—bolted and padlocked, of course. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was inhabited by giants!
At the base of the tower sits a circular concrete pool, large enough for…well, lots of people. Word has it that this unusual swimming pool fills alternately with sand and seawater, depending on the tides.
Fix your sites on the ocean beyond, and you can almost picture a swaggering buccaneer staring back at you.
If you’re not into pirates, maybe this scene brings to mind a favorite fairy tale. If you tilt your head just so, and maybe squint just a little, you might see Rapunzel at at one those rectangular windows, blonde tresses flowing, as her handsome prince clambers over the rocks to rescue her.
Alas, reality is somewhat less romantic. Built in 1926, Le Tour (as it was affectionately called back then) afforded its owners a private access between the beach and their cliff-top residence.
French Provincial Revival. That’s what the textbooks call this architectural style. Enchanting. That’s what I call it. Admire for a minute the gabled roofline, the slate roof and stained glass windows. I think the original owner (Senator William E. Brown) built for himself a gingerbread house!
At some point in the early 1940s, Sen. Brown sold the property to Harold Kendrick. He was, shall we say, a bit of an eccentric. It’s possible the retired naval officer spent too much time at sea, because he fancied himself a modern-day pirate. Dressed as a seafaring plunderer, Howard (aka The Question Man) strolled the boardwalk, distributing nickels and dimes to children who answered correctly his arithmetic, vocabulary, science, geography and history challenges. According to local folklore, he’d also tuck coins into the nooks and crannies of his tower. Neighborhood kids loved to scour the facade for hidden treasures—finders, keepers, as they say!
Time passed. The house and tower changed hands, many times over. One of its most recent owners was Bette Midler, star of the 1988 film Beaches. Some of the most memorable scenes were filmed at one of Crystal Cove State Park’s historic cottages, just a few miles away. The Divine Miss M took it upon herself to return the house to its original glory, but the tower shows its age. Even so, it holds a special place in our hearts–a battered but unbowed sentinel, bearing witness to the past.
But our story doesn’t end there. We came for the tide pools, at the far reaches of the jutting shoreline. But Old Man Winter had eroded the sandy beach, leaving behind a rocky terrain for us to explore. So we did. Then we traversed the algae covered rocks, waded through chest-high sea water, and ventured out to the very end of this island.
At least some of us did. I’m not a strong swimmer, so I hung back and made pictures.
Like miniature treasure chests, the tide pools were filled with wondrous things: sea stars and anemones, mussels and more. My friend Gretchen discovered these sea stars–so lovely of her to share!
And that’s where this adventure ends… this chapter, but not the whole story. I’ll visit again s00n, and who knows? Maybe I’ll have my sea legs by then.
If you plan to visit: The tower’s accessible at low tide only, but that’s okay, because that’s also the best time to explore the tide pools. (Check the NOAA tide tables here, and find directions here.) Please note that this is a Marine Protected Area. Loosely translated, that means you should tread lightly. Enjoy but don’t disturb any creatures you find, and leave everything in its natural habitat. Take home memories, but leave the seashells behind.
One more thing. Okay, maybe two. Hiking shoes will serve you better than flip-flops, especially on those slippery rocks. And watch for wave surges–as per usual, I got soaked when I snapped these pictures.