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Hidden stories of the California coast

The Coastal Commission's 'Beaches and Parks in Southern California' has more than 50 color maps and about 300 color photos.

July 05, 2009|Christopher Reynolds

Summer's here and the time is right for . . . 352 fact-packed pages from the California Coastal Commission.

The commission has published a weighty paperback covering San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties, and it will answer all your questions about fat innkeeper worms, the romantic impulses of Richard Henry Dana Jr., and why you can run faster than you swim.

The volume, "Beaches and Parks in Southern California" (University of California Press, $24.95), includes more than 50 color maps and about 300 color photos, not to mention entries on mugworts, newt, threespine sticklebacks and various other plants and animals of the coast, along with details on public access, parks and trails. The editor and principal writer is Steve Scholl.

This isn't a book for the lowdown on hotels or restaurants or shopping -- there's virtually none of those things here. But this is the volume to toss in the back of your Volkswagen bus with the folding chair, the Mexican blanket, the Frisbee and your lucky old abalone shell. The book continues a series that began with volumes on Northern California in 2005 and the Central Coast in 2007.

Here, drawn from the new book and only slightly sensationalized, are 10 nuggets that might be news to you.


1. It's not a bird. It's not a plane. It's not Superman. It's Cypselurus californicus. The California flying fish, often spotted by boaters headed to and from Santa Catalina Island, can glide in the air for distances up to 20 yards (Page 33). To stay aloft, the 15-inch fish uses its pectoral and pelvic fins as wings.

2. There's a good reason you can run faster than you swim. Ocean water is 3,500 times more dense than air (Page 30). In related news, sound travels five times faster in the ocean than in the air.

3. If some people had gotten their way, the waves at Santa Monica might be a lot smaller today. In a 1963 preliminary report, the Army Corps of Engineers (which also gave us the Los Angeles River's concrete corset) found it would be feasible to link Santa Monica and Malibu Beach with an offshore freeway cutting through Santa Monica Bay, with the roadbed built on a causeway or earthen fill. The corps also noted that the route might enhance recreational opportunities. The idea died (Page 50).

4. There is such a thing as a bad beach day. On a single lifeguard-free day at San Diego's Ocean Beach in 1918, 13 people drowned (Page 65).

5. Some butts are never beach-ready. On California's annual Coastal Cleanup Day (this year, Sept. 19), the most common debris is cigarette ends (Page 78).

6. The San Onofre nuclear power plant leaks. Deliberately. The plant, which operates by heating and discharging water, ejects about 1.6 million gallons per minute through 126 ports, which are spread out over nearly a mile on the shallow sea floor (Pages 253-254).

7. Newport Beach's pier is the oldest on the Southern California coast. It went up in 1888 (Page 166).

8. Richard Henry Dana Jr. probably should have eaten more oysters. The only romantic spot on California's coast, he wrote after a stint as a sailor in the 1830s, was San Juan. "Compared with the plain, dull sand-beach of the rest of the coast, this grandeur was as refreshing as a great rock in a weary land." The contemporary name for his "San Juan" is Dana Point, near the Mission San Juan Capistrano (Page 203).

9. If you're investing for the long term, think twice about coastal real estate. The level of the sea is rising at about 3 millimeters per year -- and it's been rising for the last 18,000 years. In that time, sea level in California and elsewhere has risen as much as 400 feet (Page 226).

10. Even if you hear reports of a fat innkeeper worm taking advantage of his coastal location, there's no point in calling the Better Business Bureau. This type of worm (Urechis caupo, about 7 inches long) likes to burrow in California coastal mud flats and catches food by weaving a mucous net at one end of its burrow (Page 229).


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