The Best 5 Surf Spots in San Diego County

My son Israel at Sunset Cliffs.

My son Israel at Sunset Cliffs.

With our winter surf season over (it was middling at best, with no major swells) and spring upon us, a lot of us spend our days chasing waves up and down the county.

Luckily San Diego is blessed with a plethora of waves that work year-round and are considered some of the world’s best surf spots.

Please note—all of the areas mentioned are for experienced and respectful surfers only. Don’t expect to paddle out at any of these spots if you are not a local and an experienced surfer and catch the best waves. Please respect the locals and the sanctity of the lineup.

1. Black’s Beach. One of the world’s top beachbreaks, this jewel sucks in swells courtesy of the Scripps Submarine Canyon. Probably no other spot in San Diego County is as consistent, with as many good waves and surfers, as Black’s. The water is generally crystal clear and the clarity, shape and uniqueness of the waves reminds me of beaches in Australia.

Black’s is also one of the best places in San Diego County to spot bottlenose dolphins and just offshore is one of the most important locations for shark research in Southern California.  Thankfully, Black’s is now part of the San Diego-Scripps Coastal State Marine Conservation Area—a marine protected area.

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Gabriel Medina during the 2012 Nike Lowers Pro

2. Trestles. Guess what, Orange County—Trestles is really in San Diego County—so it is our spot! (I’m joking—I realize that the incredibly generous and very talented surfers from San Clemente and most of southern Orange County are nice enough to share this spot with surfers from San Diego and around the world).

This is a great improver spot and arguably the best place on a good southwest swell to see some of the world’s best surfers at the top of their game. I love surfing here despite the crowd and so do my kids.

This is about the best place to take your groms and their friends on a surfari in the county. Just remember that dreadful TCA still wants to plow a toll road through San Onofre State Beach.

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Gabriel Medina at Trestles during the 2012 Nike Lowers Pro.

3. Swami’s. On a big winter swells, Swami’s is the Sunset Beach of San Diego County. This amazing reef that is also now a marine protected area creates lined walls perfect for high-performance surfing.

The only problem is that it is very crowded with very good local surfers who dominate the lineup, so your chances of catching a good wave here are pretty limited.

4. Oceanside. This long stretch of beach offers up a variety of breaks—from the wave field south of the pier (and around it) to the opportunities around the pier and between the jetties. Oceanside, like Imperial Beach, is still a classic blue-collar and military surf town with a very talented crew of local surfers.

Generally you can count on the fact that Oceanside is bound to be bigger and breaking a little harder than just about every other spot in North County.

George field testing his designs. Photo courtesy of G. Gall

George field testing his designs. Photo courtesy of G. Gall

5. Sunset Cliffs. This fabled stunning stretch of coastline offers up a variety of waves for every type of surfer. It is generally always crowded with a crew of older guys on bigger boards who rip, but there is typically a slot or two for everyone. Please remember to respect the locals here.

There are a ton of other spots that offer up clean and consistent waves in San Diego County. The more you travel, the more waves you score and the more friends you make.

Especially if you have kids, surfing a variety of spots is the best way for them to improve their surfing and have the type of adventures that are the stuff of groms dreams.

A nice winter day at Sunset Cliffs.

A nice winter day at Sunset Cliffs.

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Why Marine Protected Areas Benefit Surfers

Cabrillo MPA in Point Loma, San Diego.

Any North County or southern Baja vet most likely has run into Garth Murphy intensely evaluating surf conditions from shore and gracefully riding the best waves of the season. A California icon who partnered with Mike Doyle and Rusty Miller in their infamous and pioneering Surf Research company, Garth is the author of the epic novel of California, The Indian Lover, and the son of noted fisheries biologist Garth I. Murphy, who was La Jolla’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography‘s first PhD, and a professor at the University of Hawaii.

Garth, who has lived, surfed and advocated for coastal and marine protection in Hawaii, Australia and Baja California, was a member of the California Department of Fish and Game‘s Marine Life Protection Act Initiative (MLPAI) Regional Stakeholder Group.

As a result of that effort a new network of marine protected areas (MPAs) was established in Southern California with reserves at Swami’s, Black’s-Scripps, South La Jolla, Cabrillo-Point Loma and the Tijuana River Mouth. These MPAs conserve key marine ecosystems such as kelp beds, reefs, sea grass beds – the ecological features that provide the foundation for some of our very best waves.

Serge Dedina: Why should surfers care about marine conservation and creating MPAs in Southern California?

Garth Murphy: Because we have 300 wave-rich surf spots to choose from and over a million Southern California surfers average 20 surfs a year – for 20 million yearly immersions in what usually happens to be our ocean’s most bio-diverse coastal marine habitats. The Marine Life Protection Act recognizes traditional surfing as a compatible recreational use of the ocean resource, permitted in protected areas except at mammal haul-outs, bird roosts and estuaries. A network of Marine Protected Areas, by protecting and conserving complete coastal ecosystems and habitat, enhances the biodiversity and abundance of marine life, enriching our experience, while minimizing and controlling potential habitat-destructive human activities, which directly affect us.

Looking toward the San Diego-Scripps MPA and Black’s Beach in La Jolla.

Dedina: Why is preserving marine ecosystems of Southern California so important for surfers?

Murphy: Southern California surfers and marine life share natural coastal ocean habitats of every important class: estuaries and river mouths, beaches and inter-tidal zones, surf grass and eel grass beds on composite reefs like Cardiff; rare cobble reefs like Trestles, Rincon and Malibu; rocky reefs like Windansea and Laguna; submarine canyons like Blacks, and sand bars at Newport and Pacific Beach; as well as man-made habitats like the Piers at Huntington and Imperial Beach, rock jetties like the Wedge and Hollywood by the Sea, and artificial reefs.

As a boon to surfers, thick coastal kelp forest canopies, which shelter the greatest biodiversity of coastal marine species, also protect us from the afternoon winds, refining ocean surface texture and grooming the swells to extend our surfing hours and the carrying capacity of affected surf spots. Habitat-based marine protected areas preserve everything within their boundaries, including our cherished surf spots.

Dedina: What about water quality? Would marine reserves help our efforts to keep beaches free from polluted runoff?

Murphy: Coastal ocean water quality is not just a function of land pollution runoff. Over-exploitation and depletion or collapse of important food web components causes imbalances that degrade marine ecosystems and make the ocean more vulnerable to disease outbreaks and opportunistic invasive species like stinging jellyfish, algae blooms and toxic red tides, diminishing water quality and habitat suitability for marine life and surfers.

On the contrary, robust, bio-diverse marine ecosystems with intact food webs are resilient, resisting and adapting to environmental change and pollution, maintaining water and habitat quality. Estuaries are marine life nurseries, fresh/salt water interfaces that empty into many of our finest surf spots. We absorb that same water through our eyes, ears, nose and mouths on duck-dives and wipeouts. Rebuilding and maintaining bio-diverse estuaries with a full range of marine life creates healthier nurseries, and encourages upstream compliance with pollution regulations. The result is better water quality for all of us.

Dedina: So in the end, how does preserving our marine heritage in Southern California benefit surfers?

Murphy: The California surfing style evolved in a unique marine environment of glassy peeling waves. Stylish surfing and our beach lifestyle have become an important part of California history and culture –and media focus – generating an endless wave of glossy-color surf magazines, surf videos and feature films. The success of the $7-plus billion surfing industry, centered in Southern California, depends on maintaining the high cultural value of the traditional California surfing experience: as exciting, invigorating exercise, as a get-away, as a sport, a meditation, a dance, a family get-together and photo opportunity –enhanced by a vibrantly alive and healthy ocean.

The ocean is Earth’s largest and most accessible enduring wilderness. Regular contact with wilderness is a human, and especially American, cultural value, manifested today in the ocean by the popularity of surfing. A full and abundant spectrum of marine species – from whales to hermit crabs to phytoplankton – is an integral part of our ocean-wilderness experience.

Marine Protected Areas enhance ecosystem awareness by exposing us to a broad diversity of marine life. They encourage monitoring of potential problems and upstream compliance with complementary air and water quality regulations. The positive water quality and life-giving effects of marine protected areas are a valuable gift to the surfers and marine species who share them.

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