Lifeguards gather to honor late friend, Mike O’Hare, in La Jolla

Dozens gather on the lawn near The Cove to honor former La Jolla lifeguard Mike O’Hare.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Mike O’Hare might not be household name, but for the 3,000 people the La Jolla lifeguard rescued over his 25-year career, it’s a name they will never forget.

Current and former San Diego lifeguards — spanning decades of watching La Jolla’s coastline — gathered above The Cove Saturday, March 30 to honor O’Hare, who passed away in January, at a celebration of life.

Donning various styles of honorary garb — some in leis and Hawaiian shirts, others still wet from a dip in the ocean or in lifeguard hats or uniforms — paid their last respects.

O’Hare’s daughter and granchildren were among the crowd, but did not speak.

O’Hare is credited with at least 3,000 rescues from 1964 to 1989 (during the first five years he was stationed in Coronado), while he was a full-time lifeguard and supervising sergeant watching La Jolla Cove.

During the eulogy, former lifeguard Frank Powell discussed the complex nature of the rocks and caves of La Jolla, and how O’Hare “ignored it all in the name of rescuing people,” and would often come out from rescues with cuts and bruises.

“He knew every rock, every cave, every place to step and jump,” Powell said.

Former lifeguard Frank Powell leads Mike O’Hare’s celebration of life.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

According to Powell, during the El Niño weather of the 1970s and early ’80s, O’Hare made “many heroic rescues from the huge surf that pounded La Jolla’s coastline.” Some left him hospitalized, “but his fearless and selfless demeanor kept pulling him back to the beaches.”

In addition to conducting ocean rescues, O’Hare was instrumental in forming the San Diego Lifeguard’s River Rescue Team. During heavy rains, many inland areas of San Diego become flooded. To this day, flash floods and swollen river beds strand, injure, and even kill people.

As the River Rescue Team’s first team captain and instructor, O’Hare “saved many lives and taught so many of us how to rescue,” said former lifeguard Greg Buchanan, during the eulogy.

O’Hare was also known for his leadership in developing new urban swift-water rescue techniques and equipment. He created modern rescue methods specifically tailored to La Jolla’s rugged coastal cliffs, and he redesigned existing tactical gear for dangerous swift-water and beach-cliff rescues.

O’Hare was one of California’s first emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and spent many years as an EMT instructor, training hundreds of seasonal lifeguards in first aid and emergency procedures.

After O’Hare’s retirement in 1989, he continued to work part-time as an instructor for the San Diego Regional Lifeguard Academy at Miramar College. He was elected “Lifeguard of the Year” in 1972, and he received the highly coveted Charles Hardy Memorial Lifesaving Award.

Because “98 percent” of the personal stories about O’Hare could not be told in a public setting, Powell said there would be an open mic at a private reception to conclude the celebration.