La Jolla's Lifeguard Towers: Children’s Pool lookout develops by decades

Editor’s Note:

As La Jollans witness all three of their lifeguard towers under construction in some form, the Light decided to take a look at the history of the towers through the eyes and ears of self-proclaimed Lifeguard Historian: Captain Nick Lerma, as well as other former lifeguards. Our first installment examines the history of the Children’s Pool/Casa Beach tower.

By Ashley Mackin

As another harbor seal-pupping season comes to a close (Dec. 15- May 15), construction on the nearby Children’s Pool/Casa Beach lifeguard tower will begin in June. It’s one of three being redeveloped — along with La Jolla Cove lifeguard tower and the Shores lifeguard tower — and one of three with a notable history. When lifeguarding formally began here in 1918, Children’s Pool was seen as a perfect place for a widespread view.

“(Guarding at) the Children’s Pool is positioned in a way to not just provide lifeguard services to the pool itself ... but provide direct observation to the north at Boomer Beach, which is a high rescue activity area, and to the south to Hospital Point and the satellite beaches there. It’s centrally located to provide that coverage,” said San Diego Lifeguard Captain Nick Lerma.

Given the view, a lifeguard tower at Children’s Pool was deemed necessary when towers started popping up across San Diego. Former lifeguard Captain Bob Shea said towers were built during the Great Depression to give people jobs, and estimates the first Children’s Pool tower went up in the early 1930s. He based that on stories from his father, who was one of the first lifeguards stationed at the Children’s Pool and The Cove.

Sea wall changes

Around the same time (1931), the Children’s Pool sea wall was constructed, creating comparatively calm waters for inexperienced swimmers and giving a lifeguard stationed there an additional task. Swimmers reached the ocean via a staircase.

“There used to be scuppers at the western end of the sea-wall at the ground level that allowed a flow of water to come in there during the winter storms and wash the sand away to keep the Pool from accumulating sand,” Shea said.

A sad, fateful day

It was during the 1940s that atmosphere changed at Children’s Pool. Shea said one summer, a child was swimming through one of the scuppers — as they often did — and got their bathing suit caught, and was drowned.

“The city was forced to put cement (in thescuppers) and stop that flow, which allowed sand to accumulate to where it is now,” he said. “There used to be quite a swimming area, but now it’s practically nothing.”

Lerma added, “It changed the wholedynamic because the sand was no longer being flushed and it was no longer a pool. It would give rise over time to be a place that would be safe for harbor seals.”

In the 1960s, early in Shea’s lifeguard career — he was the first permanent guard at the Children’s Pool at a time when guards moved station to station — a new lifeguard tower was constructed. Considering the increased volume of equipment required due to increased responsibilities, a larger facility was needed.

Though unofficial, lifeguards kept a checklist of things a new tower would need to have, chiefly, an observation tower with a complete view of the water, enough space for the increasing number of full time lifeguards, larger storage area for equipment and an improved first aid room.

Further, because of the “extreme” rescues that were occurring, the new facility had to allow easy access for lifeguards to exit the facility when needed.

For example, Lerma said, when people would fall from the Wedding Bowl, unprepared to be in the water. “The lifeguards at Children’s Pool will see that and it is an absolute emergency from the beginning,” he said.

Further, there are sections of beach that lifeguards cannot entirely see from the tower, so instead of watching someone enter the water and keeping an eye on them, “suddenly somebody presents themselves in a rip current, and you really have to be on it. You don’t have time to react,” he said.

Contrast that with a Mission Beach rip current situation, where Lerma said, “all the signs are there, we’ve prepared for it, we know beforehand swimmers are desperate to be rescued and our system is already moving.”

Joking that sand found at other beaches is “more forgiving” than the rocks, reefs and barnacles found at Children’s Pool, Lerma said topography can thwart lifeguards attempting a rescue.

“Lifeguards tend to be challenged with the environment itself (at Children’s Pool),” he said. “It’s a different style of lifeguarding entirely. On a sandy beach, you can see the rip current and when somebody enters the water, drowning prevention is a lot easier. That’s not the case at Children’s Pool.”

Med Tech training

In the 1980s, lifeguards were required to complete Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification, and as Lerma said, “With that certification comes all that equipment,” once again adding to what had to be available on site.

The 1960s tower, which was rehabilitated in the 1970s, was demolished in August 2013 to make room for the new tower at the site.

Taking increased storage space and quick exits into account; construction will begin on the new tower in early June.

Jihad Sleiman, associate engineer for the City of San Diego, recently reported the city is obtaining an Incidental Harassment Authorization Permit so work may proceed even if seals are present.

He said crews plan to be done with major construction activities by December, when the next pupping season starts, and have lifeguards moved in by January or February 2015.

— Coming next week:

The history of changes to The Cove Lifeguard Tower in the May 22 issue of

La Jolla Light

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