Ever curious and hungry for adventure, Elaine Masters is a passionate traveler and digital storyteller. As founder of Tripwellgal.com she thrives on variety, from following fishing trends to cocktail culture and uncovering unsung destinations. Elaine hunts for stories, pictures, and video across the planet from her San Diego base. A scuba diving and seafood fanatic, she agrees with Helen Keller that, "Life's an adventure or nothing."
The ocean is a wild thing. While San Diego is a perfect place to enjoy a day by the ocean, the coast is also subject to storms and swells, rogue waves and riptides; California's beaches are not always the benign destinations popular in TV shows and movies.
Stay safe and have fun during your San Diego beach vacation with these tips.
Sunny side up
Many visitors are surprised at San Diego's maritime climate and chilly waters. These conditions are great for fish and bring moisture into an otherwise dry region. The foggy maritime layer blankets the coast many mornings between May and June. It usually burns off by afternoon, but don't plant your towel on the beach thinking about napping until the sun comes out without protecting your skin. Burning rays still filter through even though you might not feel them.
Know too that inland about three miles the weather will be sunny and warm on most days. Wear that sunscreen wherever you wander in San Diego!
About that chilly water!
The shape of the ocean bottom along the San Diego coastline causes the phenomenon known as up-welling. Chilly water from the bottom of deep trenches curls up towards the beaches as it pulls the warm water down. This causes the water along the shoreline to be colder than you might expect.
The beaches do warm up in late summer, and the water inside the bays is also suitable for hardy swimmers. If it's a bit much for boogie boarding without goose bumps, then rent a lightweight swimsuit from one of the dive or sports shops in the area. That should help make your swim more temperate.
In a region where rain is a rarity, street runoff can be full of chemicals and bacteria that flows into the sea. Bays, harbors, and marinas flush the least, and contaminants build up there. Hot spells may warm water in shallower areas and stagnation can be a real concern. Check water quality reports before setting out for a splash. The non-profit Heal the Bay has over 500 water quality checkpoints along the California coast and grades beaches weekly.
Offshore storms can bring in staggering sets of waves and surfers hover over wave reports. Conditions in the San Diego area can vary considerably depending on which part of the county you plan to surf. Trends are different in the north end close to Camp Pendleton vs. the south. There are several agencies forecasting water conditions, surf and swell size. Check with Surfline.com for the most recent reports if you're planning to catch a wave or two.
Watch your step
It's always a surprise to find a gelatinous mound quivering in the sand. You've probably come across a jellyfish; they often die and wash up on beaches. These odd mounds weep into the sand and eventually wash back out to sea. However, don't fool around -- even in death, they still can sting. Jellyfish inject nematocysts into the skin where they do their poisonous damage. The effects are: lack of sensation, some itchiness, or burning, and sometimes colorful markings. The worst stings may lead to nausea, reduced blood pressure, hard breathing, or even cardiac arrest. If any of these symptoms arise, seek medical attention immediately.
Learn the shuffle
Unfortunately, some of the very things that we love about visiting San Diego beaches -- the gentle surf, the clear water -- also appeal to stingrays who hit the beaches to mate and give birth. When you're ready to get in the water, learn to shuffle in and out, or stomp. The vibrations alert burrowing stingrays that you're nearby. If you're concerned, stop at one of the lifeguard stations and ask about the conditions.
While the cut from a sting ray is tiny, the effect is no small matter. It's incredibly painful, though not usually dangerous. The best treatment is hot water, as hot as you can stand and lots of it. Lifeguard stations have buckets of hot water for treatment and can offer advice. Otherwise, get home as quickly as possible and soak the foot or site of the sting in water that's hot but not enough to scald you. It's a persistent pain, so be patient: the sharp throbs can recur for 24-48 hours.
Don't get caught in the current
Rip currents run perpendicular to the beach, and getting caught in one can be dangerous. But a little knowledge can keep you out of panic mode and guide you through the threat.
First of all, know that if you're having a hard time getting back to the beach, you may have found a rip current. Don't fight the current by struggling to get to shore; you'll tire yourself out instead of escaping the current's grip. Calm yourself instead, and start swimming parallel to the shoreline. Eventually, you'll swim through the current and you should be able to make for the beach. If you tire, look toward the lifeguard station and raise your arms to signal for help. Each year lifeguards rescue thousands of swimmers across the US. They're trained for this, so look to them for help. Before you head out to the beach check the conditions at the NOAA Ripcurrent page as well.
You don't need to stay out of the water when you visit San Diego. Just choose a beach and times when lifeguards are available using the links above, and stay safe out there.