LA JOLLA — Locals call it the Clam, and for decades the young and the reckless have gotten their thrills by jumping from its rocky promontory into the rushing turquoise sea below.
But it also could be called the deadliest spot on the Southern California coastline.
Three San Diego teenagers have drowned in the past three months after leaping from the Clam and being unable to overcome the crashing waves and unforgiving current. Eighteen other jumpers have been injured badly enough in the past five years to require a lights-flashing ambulance ride to a hospital emergency room.
Now the San Diego City Council, with an eye toward increasing safety and decreasing municipal liability, is trying to discourage Clam jumping by boosting penalties and threatening to haul parents into court.
"What we're trying to do is discourage an activity that is deadly," said Councilman Harry Mathis, a retired Navy captain whose district includes La Jolla.
But council members turned down a suggestion that a buoy be placed near the Clam so that struggling swimmers can cling to it rather than be swept out to sea or dashed against the jagged rocks.
The city manager said a buoy might increase the city's risk of being sued because it implies the city accepts responsibility for jumpers. The legal explanation did not sit well with some residents who have watched the injury toll mount.
"As the parent of two former Clam-jumping sons, I am fully aware of the attractions of the area and its potential danger," La Jolla resident Carl Lind told the council. The council's action "seems less aimed at saving lives than avoiding lawsuits," he said.
For many San Diego teenagers, jumping from the Clam is a rite of passage, a dare that must be met. It remains to be seen whether serious-minded adults on the City Council can change that.
"The Clam will never die," said Ted Smithson, 16, as he prepared to take the 20-foot plunge. "Dudes will always jump, and nothing will change that."
"Guys have to get their kicks," said former Clam jumper Brent Dauphin, a clerk at the Goldfish Point Cafe near the Clam. "Rather than try to stop it, they should put out signs telling guys how to tell if the waves are safe or dangerous for jumping."
The council outlawed cliff jumping two years ago, making it an infraction to dive into the Pacific Ocean or Mission Bay from any point more than five feet above the water. Warning signs were posted. A first offense costs $50, a second $150.
The 1994 ban has apparently done little to discourage cliff jumping. Lifeguards last year issued 63 citations at the Clam, a figure they concede represents only a fraction of Clam jumpers.
The Clam is a steep-sided inlet near the beginning of Coast Boulevard, one of the most scenic spots on the coast. To the east are the La Jolla Caves and to the west are La Jolla Cove, Point La Jolla, the La Jolla Underwater Park, Ellen Scripps Park and the Children's Pool.
There are no signs marking the Clam, but locals know to take the steps across from Goldfish Point Cafe, past the palm trees and pine trees, and out to a secluded point where the water rushes to meet the land. A handmade cross commemorates a Clam victim: "Danny Is With God In Good Hands."
The Clam is not a lifeguard-protected area, and lifeguards can see it only if they venture out to a lifeguard shack at a nearby point called Alligator Head. To hustle over to the Clam to cite or save a jumper, lifeguards must leave their posts guarding swimmers at La Jolla Cove or the Children's Pool.
"We might have 50 or 100 bathers who expect when they go into water to have lifeguard protection, but now the lifeguard is running off to the Clam to respond to an incident that should have never taken place in the first place," said Councilman Byron Wear, a former San Diego lifeguard and former national executive director of the U.S. Lifesaving Assn.
Clam rescues are considered the most arduous faced by local lifeguards. Last year, a lifeguard received a medal of valor from the Lifesaving Assn. for saving a Clam jumper.
The Clam is most dangerous during the winter when, as a north-facing cove, it catches the deep and chilly swells from the Gulf of Alaska. The water can be 30 feet deep at high tide.
In March 1995, a 19-year-old freshman from George Washington University, returning home to visit his family in La Jolla, drowned after jumping from the Clam. And this March, twin 18-year-old brothers drowned after jumping with a group of their high school friends.
After the deaths of Trung and Hau Tring, the city government began searching for better ways than the 1994 law to stop cliff diving at the Clam, Deadman, Sunset Cliffs and other spots.
The council this month tentatively approved a proposal to increase the fines (to $280 for a first offense) and to require minors caught jumping to bring their parents to court. The proposal, sponsored by Mathis, returns to the council Tuesday for a final vote.