A Paradise Guarded by the Tides

by on July 6, 2008 · 8 comments

in Environment, Ocean Beach

Make sure to click on the images to see larger versions of them.

A view of the Pacific Ocean shrouded in morning fog.

OCEAN BEACH, CA. There are secret caves along the cliffs in Ocean Beach. It just so happens that the stretch of cliffs next to the boulevard of the same name, from Point Loma Boulevard south to Ladera Street, contain an array of beautiful, hidden and fairly inaccessible caves. Only during real low tides are some of them reachable. But these hidden geological grottoes and cuts in the sandstone cliffs and the beaches and pools inside them are nature’s displays of the wondrous interplay of land and sea that has occurred over time – right here on our front porch. For many of the populace who reside above them, these are truly secret caves, as one can live in OB or Point Loma for decades without knowing or visiting these caves of mystery.

Destroying the cliffs to save them, or is it to save the real estate above them?

On July 4th, Patty and I joined a handful of others in meeting Larry O’Brien and his wife Kerrylea for Larry’s famous tour of the caves. Larry is a local and is a lover and expert about the cliffs and the caves. He gives the tour on occasion to planning committee members and city staff, and what he has to say is very poignant and pointed. Over the years, the City of San Diego and the Army Corps of Engineers have been destroying the caves and the cliffs by dropping “foreign” boulders over the sides in efforts to shore the cliffs up against the erosive tides of time. By doing so, the natural eco-system of the cliffs is chopped up, making it more difficult for all the native species to thrive along the entire length of the cliffs.

Inside, looking out.We met Larry and Kerrylea atop the cliffs in the moist foggy darkness of 5:10 in the morning – on our nation’s birthday. We arrived that early as that was the lowest tide in weeks. We had flashlights, some food, and clothing and footwear that was okay to get wet. We started down the cliffs in single file, over slippery boulders that seemed out of place and down onto the beach level. As we carefully found our footing around the sea creatures and through the rocks and water, we entered the first set of caves – filled with sand – with only raccoon paw prints on the sand before us.

Local sandstone rocks in the foreground, foreign granite boulders in the back

Larry gave us a continuous narrative about the rocks dropped by the City and Army Corps mostly in 1970. They were “foreign” rocks – boulders really – many of them probably from Catalina Island. They are granite boulders, solid, tight – impervious to water – nothing can grow on them – nothing does grow on them. We could plainly see as the light brightened the huge disparity in what was growing on “local” rocks and boulders and what was growing on the outsiders. Nothing. No animal or plant was able to hang on and survive on the granite chunks brought in by humans. We could see the drastic cuts in the shoreline eco-system, as the boulders blocked one section off from another all along the cliffs.
A tight squeeze through the hollowMoving on in patriotic wonder, we entered one long stretch of hollow, crouching down slightly as we felt our way through the grotto. Larry pointed out the different tide pools inside the cave – calling one a “Japanese Bath” as it was large enough for a couple of people. The stretch continued and we came out on a different side, having traversed an entire point of land. We emerged in an area of rock, cliff and water that humans rarely see. The road and civilization are right above us, but down here is a paradise that is guarded by the tides.

Sea AnenomeGiant Keyhole LimpetWe carefully crept and sloshed past sea anemones, crabs, fish and barnacles – a few of us saw a small octopus – and at times up to our waist in the calm ocean. We understood that many of the caves that we passed through are normally full of water.

A cathedral formed by mother nature

Tiny shells carpet the cave bottomFinally, our last cave was a huge cavern – large enough for boulders, a large swath of sand and a million small shells. We munched on some dry food and pondered the trek that had brought us to this hidden, mysterious cliff world. The tour changes you, as you now appreciate more fully the shore life and the hidden grottoes that lay just beyond your area of vision as you cruise the boulevard of the cliffs looking for waves and surf and freedom.

A paradise guarded by the tides

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon92107 July 7, 2008 at 1:29 am

Terrific article, recognizing and describing our most wonderful Sunset Cliffs. It is sad that far too many people living in the area fail to take advantage of one of the world’s best ocean cliff ecosystems and views even though so many live within blocks. Your article, together with studies by SDSU geologists Patrick Abbott and Thomas Rockwell published in “Understanding The Life Of Point Loma” give recognition to what a most wonderful and interesting treasure we have to enjoy and study.


Larry OB July 8, 2008 at 10:42 am

I liked the article and pictures, but wanted to clarify about the granite boulders. Some barnacles and algae can live on the alien rocks, but they are relatively lifeless when compared to the local sandstone. As you can clearly see in the photos, the sandstone can develop a protective coating of red algae and marine life. In that way Mother Nature slows the erosion of the natural sandstone riprap. It is possible to mitigate the alien rocks with a facing of sandstone boulders at the water level. The upper parts of the granite pile could be gouted with sand and topsoil, then landscaped. Besides improving the marine life and the looks of the area, we could put a dent in the rat population. But first we have to get our priorities right as a people and a country.


Larry OB July 8, 2008 at 12:58 pm

At Sunset Cliffs there are several examples of deep caves with small beaches at the back end. These appear to be mature caves that have slowed their inland growth, and grow wider at the rear in a circular direction. The sand in the cave is Natures way of dealing with a cave that grows too deep too fast. Man sometimes steps in and dumps rocks in front of the cave, and then it becomes a sump trap for rotting kelp and all sorts of flotsam and trash. One cave near the foot of Froude Street generates what is most likely an unhealthy level of sulfide gas. You can often detect the rotten egg smell from the top of the cliff. And of course the rocks at the cave entrance seriously impact the diversity of life in the cave. In future OB Rag articles we’ll have to take a closer look at this ugly underbelly of Sunset Cliffs.


Molemania July 8, 2008 at 3:07 pm

Great article and pictures!! Mr O’Brien definitely knows the territory. I can’t wait for the next feature!


Frank Gormlie July 11, 2008 at 7:36 am

Anon92107 – are you able to give us links to those reports or you able to summarize them for a post here?

Also, look for this article in Trevor Watson’s new “Ocean Beach Chronicle” due to hit the stands in a week or so.


Anon92107 July 11, 2008 at 1:46 pm

Frank Gormlie, I strongly recommend the purchase of the paperback book “Understanding The Life Of Point Loma” published by the Cabrillo National Monument Foundation, available at the Cabrillo Monument, with extremely informative, expert chapters on Pt. Loma’s geologic history, climate & oceanography, nearshore tidepools and kelp forests, plant communities, animals and history of people of Pt. Loma human impacts, etc.

It’s one of the best references on any geographic location with a national monument I have ever read, and I keep it close by for ready reference. Enjoy.


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