Looking over the waters at La Jolla Cove a recent muggy day, San Diego Council of Divers president Joel Tracey spots several unknowing swimmers and snorkelers in potentially hazardous situations.
“Right there, I see two swimmers about 12 feet away from what is known as Razer Reef,” he pointed out. “It’s called that because it is covered in barnacles and if you get washed over that without a wetsuit, you are going to get cut up really bad. There aren’t any major waves right now, so they will swim close to the reef, and while they are looking at the pinnipeds that are sitting there, they forget about the waves the come every eight seconds or so. Those waves can pick them up and throw them onto the reef.”
Sweeping his gaze across the water, he added: “Over there, I see two swimmers on a place known as Takeoff Rock. There is a submerged reef head, maybe 14 inches below them right now. As waves come around, they can get drug over that reef. Right now, there are not big waves or a visible rip current, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get caught in a place you don’t want to be.”
Given the La Jolla Coastline is dotted with some of the most popular diving and snorkeling sites in San Diego, Tracey and the San Diego Council of Divers leads eight “Three R’s” — rocks, reefs and rip currents (often just shorthanded to ‘rips’) — education workshops per year for those who know how to snorkel and SCUBA dive, but perhaps not in tricky rocky conditions. The most recent workshop was at the La Jolla Caves on July 27, but three more are scheduled this summer.
Marine Safety Lt. Maureen Hodges, who guarded La Jolla until about eight months ago, said the La Jolla area is known on the force as “The Rocks” because “there are rocks and reefs at every beach,” and there is a reason these workshops are held here.
The Three R’s all go “hand in hand,” she said, “They are all hazards in the ocean that can cause injury or cause someone to have an issue where they cannot get themselves out of water. What ends of up happening is the reefs and rocks, because they are more permanently in place, have rip currents around them. In other areas, rip currents get created based on (seafloor) conditions. You’ll get lots of water with the flow of the ocean, once the waves subsides, water needs a way to get out.”
Whether fixed or flowing, when swimmers get stuck in a rip current, they often panic and cannot get themselves out.
“They try to swim against it,” Hodges said. “But it’s like trying to swim against a river — you need to swim parallel to shore to get out of it, or signal for help.”
She added, with the exception of lifelong and regular ocean users, most are unaware of these hazards: “We have seen people that dove or done some recreational activity but never experienced these conditions that create hazards and don’t recognize the dangers. Most don’t know unless they are in the ocean on a regular basis throughout the year.”
A Safety Solution
The San Diego Council of Divers was started in 1951, and in 1974, partnered with the San Diego lifeguard service to start the Three R’s program.
“It got started because lifeguards noticed an uptick in diver accidents and deaths that corresponded with the first day of lobster season,” Tracey said. “So they contacted local dive shops to let them know their instructors should be teaching these things. The program was started to teach new divers and snorkelers about the bottom structure, the rocks you don’t see because they are submerged and how the water creates rip currents and waves.”
Since that time, the program has changed to target the eight most popular diving sites along the La Jolla cliffs: North Bird Rock, Marine Street, Hospital Point, South Casa (aka Children’s Pool), Shell Beach, Boomer Point and La Jolla Caves, plus Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma. Areas such as La Jolla Shores are not included because they have a sandy bottom.
“Those are the most popular and see a lot of divers throughout the year, and are also the most dangerous,” Tracey said. “As a former lifeguard, I know it doesn’t take a lot for divers to be confused about conditions when they have only been trained in sand.”
During a typical in-water session, snorkelers learn the safest places to enter and exit the water, how to put on fins between wave sets, identify underwater features by observing water movement and surf, how to avoid common hazards for divers and snorkelers and learn to resolve problems when they do occur, encounter rip and long-shore currents and learn how to navigate them safely, and use tides and current conditions to plan dives.
All instructors are volunteers, and many are former lifeguards.
For Tracey, his guarding experience makes this mission a personal one. “I became a lifeguard in 1990, and it has always been about helping people who didn’t know what they were getting into. We don’t want people to drown if they are in the water. It’s hard for lifeguards to retrieve a dead body out of the water.”
As to whether he’s had to retrieve a deceased person from the ocean, he said, “Yeah. If you have been a lifeguard long enough, we’ve all had to do that.”
Because the conditions along the La Jolla coastline change daily — sometimes hourly — the best advice Hodges has is to swim, snorkel or dive where there is a lifeguard on duty, and talk to the lifeguards about the hazards and where you can go for whatever activity brought them to the beach.
“And if you are in a position where you cannot get out of the water, don’t fight the current, swim parallel to the shore and call for help,” she said. “A lot of people panic and try to fight it, get tired and get into trouble.”
Tracey added: “Watch the water for about 20 minutes before you go in, that will give you a good glimpse of what will happen.”
And, if you get into trouble, he added: “Know the area where you are, know the address and know how to call for help. If you are in the water calling for help, tell them to call 9-1-1 with a scuba diving-related emergency and the address.”
Tracey concluded, smiling: “If you don’t know what you are doing, take our course.”
Three R’s Workshops
• San Diego Council of Divers hosts eight workshops per summer, with three more scheduled this year. They are free and open to the public, but anyone under age 10 has to be with a parent, and those under age 18 have to have a waiver.
• Each session lasts two-to-three hours. Donations are accepted at each event and throughout the year.
• What to bring: a mask, fins and snorkel. A full wetsuit and gloves are strongly recommended for warmth and protection. Weights are discouraged unless the participant is a strong swimmer or the wetsuit is extremely buoyant. Scuba gear (regulators, BCs, tanks, etc.) is not used during the Three R’s.
• Sunset Cliffs: 8 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 10. Meet at 1250 block of Sunset Cliffs Blvd., parking lot between Adair and Osprey streets.
• Marine Street: 8 a.m. Saturday Aug. 24. Meet at 300 Marine St.
• Children’s Pool/South Casa Beach: 8 a.m. Saturday Sept. 7. Meet at 800 Coast Blvd., above stairs to the beach.
• Learn more: sddivers.com