La Jolla’s Lifeguard Towers: Population growth forces changes at Cove lookout

By Ashley Mackin

“If you consider our population over the last 20 years, it has doubled, in terms of beach-goers,” said San Diego Lifeguard Captain Nick Lerma. “Citywide, there were approximately 11 million people going to the beach 15 years ago, and last year it was around 23 or 24 million. That changes community expectation of what a lifeguard is and what a lifeguard does.”

When San Diego established a lifeguard service in 1918, there were few lifeguards, and the ones that were there typically served on a seasonal basis. However, with more people at the beach, more lifeguards were needed and when lifeguard towers were being built across the county, La Jolla Cove got one.

“A lot of things can happen and they happen very quickly in La Jolla, particularly at the Cove ... you have a huge array of things going on and things you are watching,” Lerma said. Former lifeguard captain Bob Shea said his father helped construct the first Cove station.

“My dad told me, and he was one of the first lifeguards to guard the Cove, that in the 1930s he created a depression in the cliff where the main stairway is, which is still seen today,” he said. “There are four bolts where a chair was seated there.”

Lifeguard stations were typically staffed during the summer season, but due to the amount of locals who swam at the Cove, it merited additional coverage. A more official tower was built to house those lifeguards at the Cove in the 1930s. Lifeguards would store rescue boards and other required equipment in a concrete building behind the tower known as “the shack.”

Architectural historian Tony Ciani said the first Cove tower was a Depression-era Works Projects Administration (WPA) project. The shuffleboard club that was once part of the La Jolla Bridge Club (but since removed) was also a WPA project.

Diving dilemmas

When the 1940s and ‘50s came around, SCUBA diving was added to the recreational mix at the shoreline. La Jolla Cove became a renowned site for SCUBA diving and snorkeling, so in addition to getting people out of the water when needed, lifeguards now had to know what to do with SCUBA injuries.

“Lifeguards had to speak that language and understand all the various ailments and issues (such as) barotrauma and all the things medically associated with SCUBA diving,” Lerma said.

As a result, lifeguards were given equipment similar to that used by divers, so they could explore underwater during a rescue.

Additionally, lifeguards would “size people up” (how confident was the diver navigating the waves, putting on the gear) from the tower before they got into the water (a similar practice takes place at The Shores).

“If a diver knows their equipment and puts it on with familiarity, that’s one thing. If they are having a hard time getting to the beach, the equipment doesn’t fit, that’s the other side of the spectrum. Lifeguards have had to adapt to that,” Lerma said.

Bigger digs

When it came to updating the Cove tower in the 1970s, the second tower’s design team considered the life- guards’ changing needs. Joking that the 1930s tower was “cozy” for the guards there, Ciani said the newer tower had more room and im- proved features. It was also moved back about 15 feet to extend visibility, closer to where “the shack” once was.

The rebuilt tower had roll down windows that lifeguards could adjust as needed. Ciani, a former lifeguard who contributed to the de- sign, said he also hoped to integrate an improved communications system.

“If you were at Children’s Pool (and needed to reach lifeguards at the Cove), you would call the main office in Mission Beach and tell them to connect you to the Cove to let them know there was someone in a rip current at Boomer Beach, and they would run over,” he said. However, as radios became readily available, lifeguards began using them to communicate.


Communication with other organizations has also improved. “We are experts in a lot of things, particularly rescues, but there are things lifeguards need other agencies to help us with,” Lerma said.

Citing the Department of Fish and Wildlife or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, he explained lifeguards have a list of people to call if an encounter or injury with a sea lion happens.

Acknowledging the growing sea lion presence at The Cove (determined to be the cause of the “Cove stench” distressing nearby businesses and residents), Lerma said “Our job is to understand current rules and apply them to the duties expected of us. It’s a contentious issue, but we don’t take sides, we take direction.”

The new $1.8-million Cove tower, which could be finished at the end of this year (or mid-2015), will be 80 square feet, a marked increase from the previous tower’s 30 square feet. This third tower will have a steel frame and wood siding on a concrete cantilevered base.

Coming next week:

The history of the changes to The Shores lifeguard tower in the May 29, 2014 issue of

La Jolla Light