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Windansea mural at San Diego airport could be ‘problematic’ without safety warnings, beach experts say

This sign in San Diego International Airport depicts La Jolla's Windansea Beach.
(Courtesy of Ry Peterson)

With summer in full swing and travel restrictions relaxed after a turbulent year, more and more visitors will be coming to San Diego. And some might get the idea to visit La Jolla’s Windansea Beach if they make their way through San Diego International Airport’s Terminal 2.

As part of the San Diego Tourism Authority’s “Happiness is Calling” campaign, which launched in 2011, murals depicting different San Diego communities decorate the airport. The displays join other media efforts, such as TV and radio spots in other cities and targeted marketing on travel websites.

In 2015, the Tourism Authority upgraded its campaign to increase the use of signage.

“Creative new advertising is vitally important for San Diego to remain competitive with other visitor destinations,” Joe Terzi, then-president and chief executive of SDTA, said in a statement at the time. “The ‘signs’ theme is the evolution of our Happiness is Calling campaign, which has been highly successful since we launched it nearly five years ago.”

Because the signs often depict San Diego coastlines, many of the murals in the airport include notable beaches.

Over the entry to the Alaska Airlines and American Airlines area is a large image of Windansea Beach showing the “surf shack” and a beach-goer holding a surfboard. The historically designated shack was built in 1947 by returning World War II veterans, who also were surfers, for “shade and aloha.” It has become a landmark in the area.

According to some who frequent that beach, directing people who are unfamiliar with Windansea’s rip currents, reefs and wave structure may not be a good idea.

San Diego marine safety Capt. Maureen Hodges said Windansea is not guarded every day of the year and that people should always swim near a lifeguard tower.

“Windansea is only guarded in the peak summer season and on weekends or afternoons in the fall,” she said. “If you are visiting Windansea and you don’t see guards there, I wouldn’t recommend swimming there. If there is a lifeguard there, ask about the risks associated with going in the water or hanging out on the rocks, and for safety tips based on the current conditions.”

Hodges said it was “news to me” that the Windansea mural is at the airport. Representatives of SDTA did not respond to the La Jolla Light’s request for more information, including whether research was done of Windansea’s conditions before it was chosen as a location to showcase.

Bill Fitzmaurice, president of the Windansea Surf Club, said while it is “everyone’s right to enjoy the beach as a citizen of the world,” Windansea is not a “beginner’s beach” for swimming or surfing.

“There is a rip that can be dangerous,” he said. “It’s not an easy place as a beginner. I’ve seen people with no wave knowledge get thrashed. There are currents and underwater rocks. There is also Turtle Reef offshore and a current that takes you right to it. So if you don’t know what you’re doing, you are going to swim against the rip current and panic and a wonderful day could end up being a terrible one.”

If one gets caught in a rip current, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration advises staying calm, calling for help and trying not to swim against the current, as it will not pull swimmers underwater, just away from shore.

Having surfed the area since the 1960s, Fitzmaurice said he has seen visitors try to navigate the waves and get “completely smashed,” he said.

“I think it’s the most beautiful place in San Diego, and I understand that people want to experience it, but a lot of people go there with no wave knowledge. There is a rhythm to navigating the waves that you have to learn. You can’t just pick up a guitar and instantly play a classic piece of music; you have to learn the rhythm,” he said.

He said the airport mural “could be a good thing” but also “problematic” unless there’s a note directing people to consult with lifeguards before swimming or surfing at an unfamiliar beach.

“Everyone should feel welcome there, but be respectful of the conditions around you and the people that live there. Then have a great time,” Fitzmaurice said. “Otherwise, someone might get hurt or have a bad time, and I don’t think that’s what [SDTA] wants.” ◆