SAN DIEGO — Michael Curren worries about offshore oil wells. He worries that one day the developers and the "money men" may win. If that happens, he said, the ocean will never be the same.
Grant Larson worries about sewage littering the sea. He worried when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers talked of putting a breakwater at Imperial Beach.
"It would have stripped the natural surf right out of the beach," he said, "and made it something UNnatural. My experience has been that when you put in jetties and breakwaters, you create a beach on one side--and deplete the other side.
"The surf zone itself is a highly regarded recreation area. I would hate to see an area where people can ride waves be changed overnight to a place where they can't--where they'd be idiots to try. Fortunately, through the help of the Surf Rider's Foundation in Pasadena, we stopped that one. We got a court injunction just last year, in '85."
What happens when the court injunctions stop, when judges won't grant them? Larson, a lifeguard at Del Mar since 1966, worries often about that. So does George Robert Siggins, a Del Mar surfer for more than a decade.
Siggins worries about the impact of growth in San Diego County--the effect it's having on the beach.
He worries about conflicts between local surfers and those who hail from such earthbound burgs as Santee, El Cajon and Lakeside. Curren, a lifelong "beach person," calls such people "East of 5ers," meaning they live east of Interstate 5 and have the audacity to occasionally show up on shore. He says they don't care as deeply about the ocean, or else they wouldn't litter, wouldn't fight, wouldn't cut in on a surfer and risk breaking a neck.
In other words, the ocean may not be the calm, peaceful place it often appears to be. Certain groups claim they own it, or have more of a right to it than others. Both sides share the fear that it's changing, that outside forces--man or nature--may somehow alter it irrevocably.
And yet, it is hardly a zone of open conflict. It remains the essence of many lives. Curren grew up near it, has spent much of his life on it, and can't imagine an existence without it.
Siggins has a more conventional love--as a neuroscientist, he uses it to rid himself of a demon called stress. If he ever discovers a major cure, he may have the ocean to thank. It's hard not to feel grateful, sitting by the sand, sipping a beer at Del Mar.
Larson says he takes the ocean for granted. He was born in La Jolla, grew up in Del Mar and has lived apart from the water only "a couple of times, when I finally discovered mountains. In a spiritual sense, they're quite similar," he said.
And the ocean?
"Every day, every morning," he said, in his Del Mar lifeguard tower, "it's like returning to an old, dear friend. It's incredibly invigorating."
He talks of the ocean as an agent of dynamism. "Free-flowing, always changing," he said. "It can be flat and calm one day, and then the surf picks up with a vengeance. You can go from a tranquil parade to a blistering encounter. It's changing all the time. That's one of the many things that make it exciting."
It's also changing in terms of conflict. Larson loves to "sportfish" for albacore and yellow-fin tuna (he cans it and stores it himself) but is also aware of commercial "gill netters" and the loathing they feel for sport fishermen. (Environmentalists are at odds with gill netters over their treatment of whales and dolphins.) It's almost as bad as surfers wanting sole access to the water that "East County types," for some reason, seem to be craving to share.
Maybe they, too, feel a kinship with the waves. Isn't the ocean also theirs? Does living near it, or on it, give anyone a priority?
Do "inland immigrants," as they're sometimes called, have a right to the kind of feeling Curren describes in an almost-reverential whisper?
"Just about anywhere, you can go to the ocean and really enjoy it," he said over a drink at a local bar. "It's powerful, it's moving, it's scary, it's beautiful. It can handle any mood. It can change a bad mood. Everyone should have a right to it."
But do they?
As one of three year-round lifeguards at Del Mar (20 in the summer), Larson said the biggest law-enforcement problems involve East County residents.
"Glass containers and litter, those are the big things," he said. "These are mostly good kids coming down (from East County), but they do leave litter--at times, lots of it. They tend to come to the beach for a day, whereas locals are here day in and day out. Locals, I don't think, would leave litter on the beach. At least not so much."
Roger Salter says problems on the beach can't be assessed as black versus white, east versus west.
Salter, a teacher at Santana High School in Santee, has seen prejudice on the beach first-hand. Last year he took a group of students to Pacific Beach to try out the surfboards they had made in plastics class. The word whispered in the ear wasn't "plastics," a la "The Graduate."