Doug Burleigh, June 12, 2019
La Jolla Cove and the bay between the Cove and La Jolla Shores is one of the best places in the world for ocean swimming. It is the home of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club.
The club’s mailing address is Box 427 La Jolla, CA 92038.
The club is an informal organization of (mostly) friendly people who like to swim in the ocean. The club has no regular meetings but tries to sponsor an activity approximately once a month. The larger events are the Polar Bear Swim on New Year’s Day, the “Pier to Cove” Swim (1.5 mile) in late June, and the 10 Mile Relay in late September. The Swim Club also supports, but does not sponsor, the La Jolla Open Water Swim on the second Sunday in September. This event may grow in the future to include other distances.
Club members, and non-members, swim here daily, regardless of weather and water temperature, throughout the year. Some swimmers only swim ½ mile or less once a week, some wear a wetsuit even in summer, and some wear fins. Other hardy souls will swim several miles every day of the year without a wetsuit, even in the coldest water of winter, and some even swim in the dark. Many swimmers training for marathon swims, such as the English Channel, the Catalina Channel, or Manhattan (NYC) Island swim, use this area to train.
The club has a winter swim program called the “Big Chill”. Swimmers send in the number of miles they swim and we add them up to reach a virtual location in the warm waters of the South Pacific. In the winter of 2013/14, our swimmers accumulated over 9750 miles!
The club welcomes all swimmers, male and female, young and old, fast and slow, and both short distance and long distance swimmers. Competitive swimming is supported but is not required.
Groups of swimmers go out daily year ‘round throughout the day from sunup to sundown. Times change but some typical times are 6:30, 8, 9, 9:30, 11, 2, 3:30. There are small groups who swim after work, around 4-6 PM, though the sun goes down as early as 4:30 in the winter.
Some swimmers usually swim alone, some swim with buddies, and some swim long distances with kayak support. If you want someone to accompany you, ask around and you may find someone who wants to swim your distance at your speed at a time when you want to swim. The best time to find swimmers is around 9 AM, with more present throughout the day on weekends and in the summer.
If you want advice on ocean swimming, ask another swimmer, ask the lifeguards, or contact the club through the website or PO Box.
Always remember three things: 1) Know your limits, 2) Panic kills, and 3) When in doubt, STAY OUT!
The La Jolla Cove Swim Club advises swimmers to not take risks in the ocean and to not do anything that is dangerous to themselves or to others. People should take responsibility for what they do, and should not get themselves into a situation that they cannot get themselves out of.
Ocean swimming can be a dangerous activity and can even be fatal to a person who is not in good physical condition, is not a skilled swimmer, or is not familiar with local ocean conditions and hazards.
Anyone who is new to this activity or to this area should ask the lifeguards for advice, investigate local conditions, stay relatively near the lifeguards, swim with a buddy, or have a kayak escort.
The club recommends swimming only when the lifeguards are on duty (see below).
Wear a brightly colored (yellow, orange, bright red, green or white) bathing cap so the lifeguards can see you more easily. The club sells silicone swim caps in bright yellow, hot pink, and white with the club logo on them.
Always check the information board at the lifeguard station before you swim to see what the conditions are and to read warnings on dangerous conditions, such as big surf, cold water, contamination, jellyfish, etc.
Check to see when high and low tides are and especially if there is a negative low tide.
Talk with the lifeguards if you don’t understand or are concerned about the conditions.
See the sections below on surf and other specific hazards.
If there is a dense fog (fairly rare) don’t swim out of sight of the cove. You could become disoriented, lost, and not be able to find your way back to the cove. And the lifeguards won’t be able to see you or hear you.
If there is lightning (rare) stay out of the water.
Sunscreen. Use it! Your skin will thank you years later.
Lubricate (Vaseline or BodyGlide) your armpits, neck, or any other area of your body that is subject to chafing during repetitive motion.
For those new to the area or those new to swimming, snorkeling, or diving in this area, there is an excellent program called the 3 R’s (Rocks, Rips, and Reefs) that is run on Saturday mornings from May through the summer by the SD Council of Divers and some former lifeguards. Each session is approximately 2 hours long and is devoted to one area around La Jolla, and one session is always at the Cove. The schedule can be found on their website.
The La Jolla Cove lifeguards are experts at ocean rescue and watch over us year ‘round. Lifeguards are on duty at the Cove year ‘round, generally from 8 AM to 5 PM, but their schedule varies with season, so make sure someone is on duty before you go out. They can provide information, first aid, and they can call for emergency assistance (boat, jetski, helicopter, ambulance) if required.
If you get in trouble in the water, look toward the lifeguard tower, wave (at least) one arm and make as much noise as you can. Take off your brightly colored swim cap and wave it. If a lifeguard looks at you and forms his arms into a circle over his head, he’s asking if you’re OK. Give him the same sign in return unless you need help.
Tell the lifeguards if you are will be out swimming for a long period of time, or if you are swimming across the bay, getting out, and are not coming back for a long time. The guards get concerned when they see swim bags sitting for long periods of time.
Remember that the farther out you are, the less likely you will be seen and the longer it will take a lifeguard to reach you. The lifeguards have high power binoculars and can see quite well all the way to La Jolla Shores, but they are not always looking through them or in that direction. Look for other swimmers or kayaks nearby, as they may be able to help you until a lifeguard can reach you. Or swim to the nearest buoy and use it for flotation.
Know your limits and try to not get in trouble far from shore.
Look before you leap! Don’t dive into the water unless you know it’s safe to do so.
Watch out for rocks, as La Jolla Cove has lots of them and many are just below the surface of the water, especially at low tide. We don’t want you to break any of our favorite rocks by banging your head on them. And we’d rather not have blood in the water. At high tide rocks are usually not a problem. However, during very high tides, the tidal surge can hit the steps and even the rock wall at the rear of the Cove beach. In surgey conditions, stay on the right side (looking into the cove) of the steps, as people have been injured when they were rammed into the steps by a wave or tidal surge. Several swimmers once witnessed a diver get slammed head first into the bottom step. It was a surprise that he wasn’t knocked unconscious or killed.
Be especially careful during very low (especially negative) tides, which occur mostly in the winter.
If the water isn’t clear you won’t be able to see rocks. If the water is clear don’t trust your ability to judge the depth of the water over the rock, as the water refracts light, and it may appear that the rock is deeper than it really is. To be safe, don’t dive in; walk in and gently lay down in the water, putting your hands in front of your face and head. Be careful coming in also, especially if visibility is poor or if there is surf following you, as you can run into a rock at the water’s edge. Especially stay away from rocks when there is big surf, as the surf will frequently push swimmers toward the rocks at the right of the cove. The most dangerous combination is big surf and very low tide.
Always be aware of the location of “Takeoff” rock. This is on the left side of the cove looking out from the cove beach. It’s a flat rock reef that is exposed during very low tides, but is just under the surface during other tides. Don’t put yourself between a wave and Takeoff or you could end up being dumped on top of it.
There is another rock about 20 feet to the right of Takeoff, looking out from the beach. This rock is dangerous during very low tide, especially with surf. It has cut a number of swimmers.
Very Low Tide (VLT) is a special and very dangerous condition. VLT is when low tide is 0 feet or below. It can be as low as -2 feet. VLT is most common in the winter months.
During VLT the safe route in and out of the cove is on a line between the ¼ mile buoy and the stairs.
During VLT many rocks are close to the surface. Always be aware of this, keep your head up, keep your hands out in front of your face and watch behind you for waves.
Coming back in to the cove land at a point between the stairs and the large rock to the right of it. Left of the stairs, in the water, is the “Boulder Field”. When the tide is low enough, many of these rocks are exposed. Many people have been cut and bruised there, especially divers; for some reason divers seem to be drawn to this area like a magnet.
VLT combined with big surf is extremely dangerous. When you see surf look at the tide chart. Be aware what you’re getting yourself into! In this case a lot of rocks can be near the surface and surf may keep you from navigating through them without hitting them. Many people have been cut by rocks under these conditions.
La Jolla Cove can be hazardous for swimming when the surf is up because of the rocks and local conditions that exist during surf. When the surf is up in the Cove, consider swimming at La Jolla Shores instead of the Cove, as the Shores has no rocks, it has a sandy bottom, the waves come straight in towards you, and the surf is usually smaller at the Shores.
Heed the lifeguards’ warnings. When the surf is up they usually recommend (or require) fins and say it’s for “expert swimmers only”. They rarely close the cove to swimmers.
Know your limits; the life you save may be your own.
Don’t make the lifeguards risk their lives to rescue you in big surf when you shouldn’t have gone out in it.
When there is big surf in the cove area, the largest waves can break outside the cove near the point, and travel from left to right across the Cove. They tend to push swimmers toward the rocks. There’s a small inlet to the right of the Cove called “the Hole”, which is a very dangerous place to be when the surf’s up. Many swimmers have ended up there and had to be rescued.
The bigger surf is the more dangerous it is. The energy in a wave is probably proportional to the square of its height. So a wave that’s twice as high as another probably has four times as much energy. Surf over 3-4 feet should be considered potentially dangerous, especially if you’re new to ocean swimming or to the Cove. Surf of 6-8 feet should be considered dangerous even if you are a good swimmer. Surf over 10 feet is extremely dangerous even to expert swimmers wearing fins. Though very rare, surf can get as big as 15-20 feet in the Cove area.
If you’ve been out swimming for a while and when you return you realize the surf has gotten dangerous, consider swimming to La Jolla Shores or the Marine Room (not Boomer) to get out. You can walk back from there. If you don’t think you can swim that far, stay calm, stay out beyond the surf, and signal to the lifeguards that you need assistance. They can come out from the cove on a paddleboard, or they can call for a jetski to come from the Shores.
Watch out for kelp in big surf; fortunately kelp usually doesn’t grow thick in the surf zone.
Some swimmers’ strategy for dealing with big surf is to wait for a lull and then swim out. Then they’ll wait for a lull coming back in. This is a dangerous practice. If there are waves that are bigger than you think you can handle, don’t go out that day; or go out from the shores.
Your safety plan should not be based on luck. This is similar to an intermediate skier going down an expert (black diamond) run and thinking that if they hit all their turns just right, and nothing goes wrong, they can make it down the mountain. If they miss a turn they could get hurt.
Don’t base your safety plan on luck and avoidance.
There will always be another day, but not if you commit “SURF-icide”.
When in doubt, don’t go out.
In the winter the ocean water may get as cold as 50 degrees, while in the summer it will usually reach 70 degrees or even slightly more. The temperature can drop 10 degrees or so overnight due to currents, surf, or upwelling.
If you stay out too long in cold water, especially when you are not used to it, you can get hypothermia. It’s normal to shiver after you get out of the water in the winter, especially if you don’t wear a wetsuit. This is mild hypothermia; get used to it if you want to swim in the winter. Shivering is good exercise for the whole body!
To avoid or reduce the effects of hypothermia wear a neoprene bathing cap or a wetsuit in the winter. There are special wetsuits for swimmers; wetsuits made for surfing or diving don’t have enough flexibility in the shoulder area. Swimmers’ wetsuits are made by XTERRA, Aqua Sphere, Quintana Roo, Orca, Body Glove and a few others. They can be found at specialty stores for swimmers or tri-athletes.
Hypothermia does not happen suddenly; it comes on slowly as your body temperature drops. It can cause mental confusion, disorientation, and poor judgment. It will eventually lead to sluggishness, loss of motor skills and loss of consciousness, which is never a good thing when you’re in the ocean.
Hypothermia can be fatal; a man from out of town died here from hypothermia a few winters ago.
How hypothermia affects a person depends on time, temperature, activity level, body fat (some people have natural wetsuits), and individual differences in circulation, metabolism, etc. Some people are more resistant to it than others. Most people will become somewhat acclimated to cold water if they swim year ‘round here. But everyone has a limit for time and temperature, and if you exceed your limit you will be in trouble.
Stay close to shore until you know your limits. This is especially true for out-of-town swimmers who can swim long distances in a warm pool but are not used to cold water.
If, while you are swimming, you start to feel very cold, or become disoriented, or stat to shiver, get out of the water as quickly as possible. Put your clothes on as soon as possible. If you’re concerned, report to the lifeguards and they can help you.
Know your limits. Do not exceed your limit for the combination of distance and temperature. If you don’t know what your limits are, stay close to shore until you can figure them out. For example, if you want to swim a mile for the first time, don’t go to the ½ mile buoy and back, go to the ¼ mile buoy twice. After you’re confident in your ability to swim a mile, then go to the ½ mile buoy.
Don’t swim straight out as far as you can; remember you still have to swim back.
If you’re swimming a long distance, consider getting a friend to accompany you with a kayak or paddleboard.
Don’t get yourself into trouble by following other swimmers who may be swimming farther than you are used to, or capable of.
You can’t rely on other swimmers to help you, especially if you are far from a lifeguard tower.
Nutrition will not be extensively covered here, as this is a very specialized topic.
Be aware that if you swim long distances, there will be a time beyond which you will need to drink or eat. This is usually more than an hour for most people, though some people can go much longer than that, and some less. However, at some point you will become dehydrated or hypoglycemic if you don’t nourish yourself, and this can cause you to become weak or disoriented; again, not a good thing.
If you’re swimming this long, consider using a kayak escort, as your escort can carry food and drink for you and watch out for your general well-being.
If not, sports drinks in foil pouches and gel packs (food) can be carried under your bathing suit.
Gel packs are made by Power Bar, Cliff’s, GU and others. Some contain caffeine and double caffeine.
Currents in this area are generally weak and not a problem; you won’t get swept out to sea. You can determine the direction of a current by observing the direction the kelp is leaning. Check your position occasionally, as the current may take you slightly off your desired swim course.
Currents during big surf can be a problem inside the cove itself. See the section above on Surf.
Comments on wildlife are general guidelines. Creatures that live in the ocean can do whatever they like; they are not subject to any local laws. Generally, there are few dangers from wildlife in the Cove.
The Cove is part of a marine reserve. Nothing may be removed from the cove, including shells and rocks.
Fishing and spearfishing are illegal in the cove, though you can do both nearby.
Feeding fish is also illegal in the cove.
There are lots of fish to see, including the ubiquitous orange Garibaldi, which is the symbol of the club. Other common fish are Kelp bass, Opal eye, California Barracuda, Sheephead, Halibut, Yellowtail, white seabass, and huge schools of small (“bait”) fish such as Smelt, Mackerel, Sardines, Anchovies, etc.
At the water’s edge you will see Striped Surf Perch and Corbina.
Under rocks and ledges you may find Lobster (clawless), Octopus, abalone, moray eels, etc.
Sea lions have become an on-going problem at the Cove due to their increasing numbers. It’s best to not get too close to them on the beach or rocks, as they will sometimes lunge and try to bite people if they are touched or harassed. They are wild and they have teeth. Some of the big males can weigh 700 pounds; stay away from them, as they can be aggressive. In the water, sea lions may swim near you and look at you, blow bubbles, do somersaults under you, or jump out of the water like a dolphin. It’s best to just ignore them.
Seals are rarely seen in the cove, but they are common in and near Children’s Pool. Seals are curious and may swim right up to you and even touch you with their whiskers. They won’t bother you. They are cute, but they are predators; you wouldn’t think they were cute if you were a fish.
Stingrays are not common in La Jolla Cove, but are very common on the other side of the bay at La Jolla Shores, where there is much more sand. If you get stung, see the lifeguards immediately for first aid.
Bat rays up to 4-5 feet across can be common in the summer outside the Cove and over toward La Jolla Shores. They won’t bother you, but keep a safe distance, as they have barbs. Remember Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter.
Jellyfish are not common here. We do see them occasionally, mostly in the summer, but not every summer. The Black Sea Nettle is the worst local jelly. We don’t have dangerous jellies like the Portuguese Man of War (East Coast), or Box jellies (Australia). Fortunately, the stings of the local jellies aren’t serious for most people. If you are stung you may feel an annoying itch or see some red marks or welts on your skin. However, some people are more sensitive or allergic to them and their reactions may be more severe, but usually still limited to bigger welts and swelling. The lifeguards can provide first aid and offer advice.
Sharks are seen occasionally in the area around the Cove, but they are mostly relatively small (up to 4 or 6 feet), benign, bottom feeding varieties such as leopard (not tiger), smoothhound, soupfin, horn, 7 Gill, shovelnose guitarfish, and some more pelagic varieties such as swell, salmon, small blues, etc. Large numbers (hundreds) of leopard and smoothhound sharks and guitarfish are occasionally seen during the summer at La Jolla shores. This is definitely worth seeing. Don’t bother them. Rare visitors to the La Jolla Bay include hammerheads, makos and Great Whites. Your chance of seeing one of these is about the same as being hit by lightning, but you’re entering an environment that has some risk… like going into a forest where you might see a bear….such as Yosemite or Yellowstone National Park
Moray Eels can be found occasionally but they live under rock ledges and they won’t bother you if you don’t bother them or offer them your hand.
Shrieking Eels have never been seen in the cove. “They always grow louder when they're about to feed on human flesh!” (from the movie “The Princess Bride”)
If you’re very lucky while you’re out swimming you may see Giant Black Seabass, which can be as large as 500 pounds, or a Sea Turtle, which can be 3-5 feet long. You may also see Broomtail Grouper, Squid and Dolphins. Even whales come into the bay occasionally and have been seen by lucky swimmers.
Kelp and several other varieties of seaweed are common here. Sometimes kelp gets very thick and forms floating “paddies” or rafts. The kelp won’t grab you and drag you down. Keep in mind that it floats and it will actually help you float if you lay on top of it. If you run into thick kelp while swimming, you have three choices: go around it, swim across it, or swim under it. The latter is not recommended except for short distances. To swim across it, keep your head up and out of the water as much as possible, keep your shoulders level, and just swim over it. Push it down with your hands. Watch out for your goggles, as kelp can make them leak or come off. If you get bogged down in the kelp, don’t panic; just relax, tread water or float for a moment, and assess the situation. Look for the shortest path out and calmly untangle yourself. If you get caught under the kelp, just calmly spread it apart and get your head out of the water.
If necessary, you can usually break a kelp stalk by bending it and snapping it like a carrot. Or bite it.
Watch out for kelp in big surf; fortunately kelp usually doesn’t grow thick in the surf zone.
Plankton blooms are fairly common and occasionally the visibility in the water is near zero because of it. One type of plankton is called “Red Tide” because when you are below it and looking up, sunlight can appear slightly red. It generally looks brown when you’re swimming in it. Red tide can affect some sea creatures and can cause crustaceans (mussels, clams, etc.) to become toxic when eaten. Some swimmers report that they are sensitive to it and get rashes from it. Most people are not affected by it.
Be careful swimming when visibility is near zero, especially around rocks, buoys and other swimmers. If you don’t know where the rocks are, maybe you shouldn’t swim until visibility improves.
Specialty swimming gear such as swimsuits, speed suits, specialized swimmers’ wetsuits, neoprene bathing caps, goggles (including prescription), fins, bodyglide, gel packs, etc. may be found locally at Paradowski’s Swim and Sport at 7962 Convoy Court (off Convoy St., north of Clairemont Mesa Blvd.), (858) 569-6946. They are a sponsor of the La Jolla Cove Swim Club.
La Jolla Swim and Sport at 7644 Girard Ave. in La Jolla (858) 454-4002, is another swimmer supply store.
Other stores that specialize in tri-athlete supplies may also have what you need.