Wave Safe - California

Learn how to stay wave safe in California.


Everyone loves a good wave, and the search for the perfect wave, and beach lifestyle, seems to have been born on the Southern California Coast.

These beaches may be one of California’s favorite places to play, but they can also be dangerous. Whether you live here or just visit, we all need to start by respecting the ocean.

Waves in California can include powerful surf and crushing shorebreaks combined with hazards along the shore such as piers, steep cliffs, strong currents and unguarded beaches.

You make sure your beach experience is safe and fun, by being prepared for these and other dangers. To be ocean safe you want to be informed and situationally aware so you can stay calm before you act. To be wave safe you need to stay aware of dangers from the sand to the surf.

California has an excellent system of warning signs on many beaches. Be sure to take the time to read them. It could save your life.

Any breaking wave can be dangerous but a wave breaking directly on a steep shore, like this one, is even more likely to cause serious injuries. These conditions are called a shorebreak. Why is this type of wave so dangerous? Imagine the weight of a car pushing down on your head, neck or back and pinning you against the sand. That is the impact a shorebreak wave can have and change your life forever.

California is also known for powerful surf that can be unlike waves you have experienced anywhere else. Even experienced lifeguards have died protecting others in the surf of California.

Large waves during high surf conditions can easily break over cliffs and rocks knocking people off their feet and into deadly hazards below. Even experienced ocean visitors can be overcome by the power of the waves in California, so your first choice should always be guarded beaches for any activity. Lifeguards are trained to help and they know the local waters. They’ re your best source for beach information and the warning flags or signs near lifeguard stands will help you know what to expect at that beach.

Before your feet hit the sand know your local weather and tides in as much detail as possible. Changing conditions can transform a calm shoreline to a beach full of hazards. NOAA’s national weather forecast site can give you the information you need. No matter what the forecast shows always respect the power of the ocean and obey the one rule that I always follow: If in doubt, don’t go out.

While you are still in a safe and dry area, experts recommend you spend fifteen minutes watching the water to become aware of changing waves patterns and beach hazards. So do what the experienced surfers do and learn the waves. They can vary immensely minute to minute in height and intensity. Just because it looks calm this second, doesn’t mean it will be when you go in the water.

Let’s say the weather’s perfect for a session in the surf. You’ve read the waves properly, and you’re ready to hit the water. This is the impact zone where the power of the waves meets the beach and you. It’s where a lot of the danger lies. Boogie boards, surfboards and kayaks can cause severe injuries when pushed or pulled by the power of a wave. When you are leaving the water, never turn your back on the ocean until your feet are on dry sand.

When you see someone else in trouble, and before you act, stay calm and practice what we call “Take Ten.” Pause to alert the lifeguards, or someone on the beach and call 911. While help is coming, look for something that floats or will let you reach and assist the person in trouble while you stay safe. The most important action you can take is to protect yourself first so you don't become the tragic second victim.

Enough fun in the Southern California waves and you might never want to leave. Make sure you stay informed, situationally aware, and calm if you end up in a dangerous situation, and you can happily return again and again.

Before your feet hit the sand, join us as we visit American coasts in the Ocean Today Wave Safe Series.