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Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | After an incredibly mild start to the winter, the rain has finally descended on San Diego.
During the months that it did not rain significantly, oil, trash, fertilizer and dog excrement piled up on the streets and sidewalks. The rains have taken all of that filthy build-up into the Pacific Ocean and right out into many, if not most, of the spots that San Diego surfers worship. While the yearly winter pollution from storm drains is a fact of life for urban surfers, there are some rules that can be followed to avoid getting sick.
The standard warning is to not go in the ocean until 72 hours after it has stopped raining. However, if the surf is all-time, a very large percentage of surfers ignore that rule.
The next best thing to staying out of the water for three days after it rains is to surf somewhere without storm drain outlets, creeks or rivers emptying into the sea. In San Diego, the best bet there is Black’s Beach, as it is surrounded by enormously tall cliffs and has no river or creek that lets out nearby.
That said, I have surfed many polluted surf spots on polluted days over 15 years of surfing and have only gotten sick from the ocean twice.
The first incident occurred at Malibu’s Surfrider State Beach one summer when I was about 16 and the highly polluted estuary there had just been breached by bulldozers, spilling its stagnant contents into the line-up.
Ignoring warning signs posted on the beach — which are usually posted after a rainstorm — I surfed anyway and came home with some sort of bizarre skin rash that it took a prescription of steroids and about a week to heal.
My most recent run-in with aquatic bacteria came in Mexico at a spot called Baja Malibu, known for its poor water quality due to its relative proximity to the mouth of the Tijuana River.
There had not been any rain, but it is just one of those places that are always dirty. The water there is always a brown topped by yellowish foam that smells like detergent.
After two hours of joy — the surf was epic — I was stuck out of the water for almost two weeks as puss came out from under my eyes, during the worst sinus infection my doctor said he had ever seen.
Not only that, but I also came away with boils on my face, the scars of which have still not totally healed.
It may seem strange and perhaps stupid to keep surfing in dirty water after experiences like those related above, but for a die-hard surfer, when the waves are really good, almost nothing from sharks, to jelly fish, to pollution will stop an entrance into the surf.
However, that must be qualified by saying that only really good waves meet the requirement for automatic entrance, because it is most certainly not worth losing valuable weeks laid up sick over two-foot mush.
Another factor that has at times played into my decision to risk dirty water is the fact that it is always less crowded after it rains, because there is a very large percentage of sensible surfers who take the 72-hour rule seriously and don’t enter the water.
While I congratulate them on their willpower, their absence, combined with good surf is an even greater inducement to enter polluted water. It is not often that you get to surf some of your favorite spots with just a few guys out. The chocolate color of the surf is the reason for that.
There is also a close relationship between rain and good surf: both come in the winter. Thus, very often San Diego gets some of its best waves on rainy days or in the 72-hour period after it rains, creating a dilemma for surfers, because winter and its large swells only stick around for three months of the year.
Some pollution, however, can occur even when it is dry. That is the case in Imperial Beach, when summer’s southerly swells bring water north from the Tijuana River Mouth to Imperial Beach.
One big tip is not to go into polluted water with open wounds, or if the surf is really that good, do it somewhere like Black’s where it will be the relatively cleanest water around.
Probably the best way for surfers to fight against pollution is to join the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to preserving the oceans, the coast and protecting surf spots. Surfers can donate their time to beach clean-ups and other events and money by officially joining. The San Diego Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation is the largest in the nation.
Edward Graham is a freelance writer living in La Jolla. He has been surfing in Southern California for 15 years. You can e-mail him at