National Geographic Society Newsroom

How California Rocks the Ocean

While it has become popular to disparage California as, “the once great state,” and bemoan its high taxes, troubled schools, and slow economic recovery, I can’t imagine trading a day on the California coast watching whales or catching waves for a day anywhere else along America’s shoreline or interior. I just went scuba diving off...

While it has become popular to disparage California as, “the once great state,” and bemoan its high taxes, troubled schools, and slow economic recovery, I can’t imagine trading a day on the California coast watching whales or catching waves for a day anywhere else along America’s shoreline or interior.

I just went scuba diving off Monterey and saw a couple of cormorants swimming underneath me 45 feet down.  Even the birds can’t stay out of the ocean in California.

California’s beaches have long had a magnetic pull. Photo: David Helvarg

So what is it about the most populous of the United States and the Pacific Ocean, the world’s largest sea covering one third of the planet, that creates such a powerful cross-current of culture, risk and reward, history, economy, and mythology?

There’s the recreational aspect, of course, with year-round access including over 100 million day visits per year to southern California’s beaches, also the transportation element, the kite-surfers, sailboats, ferries, tankers, and freighters that make San Francisco Bay a maritime ballet by the Golden Gate, that draws day sailors into Avalon and Two Harbors on Catalina or inspires dive boats to drop anchor off the Channel Islands.

There are the fishing boats working the rough waters of the north Pacific above Point Conception, hauling in still wild and wildly delicious salmon and Dungeness crab, rockfish, black cod, and spiny urchins for export to Asia.  And there’s the coastal and global trade going back to shell beads and cow hides that now includes the nation’s two biggest ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.  If you buy anything that says ‘Made in China’ odds are 50/50 it came over these docks or through Oakland.

Of course there’s also the restored marine wildlife of a still vital and productive sea, the “Serengeti of the ocean,” with pods of dolphins, whales, elephant seals, sea lions, sea otters, and white sharks, “the man in the gray suit,” although the females are bigger, up to 21-feet.

There’s offshore energy, both clean and dirty with the memory of the Santa Barbara oil spill always lingering and Navy towns and training ranges for securing the seas: San Diego’s Aircraft Carriers and submarines and the Marines at Camp Pendleton, where you can see the amphibious warfare exercises from Interstate 5 but they’ll still let you surf at Trestles.

There’s the cutting edge marine science practiced at Scripps, around Monterey Bay, at UC Davis’s lab by Bodega Head and Humboldt State’s at Trinidad, plus the awe and wonder you can feel, surfing, sailing, diving, paddling, walking the beach at sunset, or just drinking your margarita at a waterfront bar in Laguna Beach or above Big Sur, waiting for the green flash on a calm flat day as the sun sinks in the western sea.

California’s shoreline is where U.S. westward expansion ended but the promise never did, where the frontier turned to liquid and a gold rush and a world war transformed the golden shore.  This is where half a million Pacific Rim immigrants, whose landfall was not Ellis Island but Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, came to vie for power with a Eurocentric eastern establishment.  This is where environmental engagement and the frontier mentality forged a new dialectic of nature along Highway One, the most scenic coastal road in America.

It remains a challenge to even express what it is that links the innovative, entrepreneurial, and risk-taking spirit of Californians who’ve built the eighth largest economy on earth to the ocean that borders their state and state of consciousness infusing both with a sense of tidal flux, a belief that change is the only constant and if you can just catch that next wave you’ll be sitting on top of the world.  Today about half the world’s population lives within 150 miles of a coastline.  In California that figure is closer to 90 percent within 50 miles.  Most of the state’s gross domestic product of almost two trillion dollars is generated in its coastal counties, which account for 14 out of the state’s 19 million jobs.

And it’s because most Californians are so dependent on the ocean that they feel a sense of entitlement to the coast and seas.  In turn, because there is such a diversity of users from surfers to sailors, the maritime industry, fishermen, the Navy, coastal home owners, that no single industry or special interest gets to dominate decision making, and so California has been able to reach common democratic agreements to protect and restore its ocean.

But what a long strange trip it’s been and what a bounty of history and conflict that ocean has spawned up and down the coast from Oregon to the Mexican border, from Crescent City that was battered by a Tsunami in 1964 and again in 2006 and 2011 to southern California’s Huntington Beach, known as ‘Surf City, USA,” and points south to where California becomes Baja California.

It’s a sometimes seamless seeming ride through time and saltwater from “Sea Dog” Francis Drake’s pursuit of Spanish galleons off the north coast to today’s U.S. Coast Guard chasing Mexican pangas, small boats smuggling drugs and migrants, off the southern coast now that the land border has tightened up.  It’s a wild ride along a wild ocean no less epic for its having been discovered and rediscovered by generations of California watermen and women living on the edge.

And while California also has spectacular granite mountain ranges, the planet’s largest trees, and a world-class desert, it’s the ocean that makes it what it is.  It’s the water.  Without the Pacific, California would just be a long skinny clone of Nevada.

David Helvarg is the author of The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.