Chronicles of Ubo: Pirate Cove, Big Corona, Newport Beach, California

Looking west/northwest at Pirate Cove

Looking west/northwest at Pirate Cove

Today, I biked across the Newport mesa to Pirate Cove. I go there like a homing pigeon now that I’m older and more cautious about waves and the ocean’s temperament. The ocean is usually pretty mellow at Big Corona. This is by design, of course. The Army Corps of Engineers did a lot of work to calm her down back in the thirties. Still, the ocean always has a temperament, and today, it was a bit feisty.

The first thing I saw as I stepped onto the sand was a used plastic tampon. I see, I thought. The ocean is having female problems today. I walked down to the shoreline.

A used plastic tampon left on Big Corona's beach

A used plastic tampon left on Big Corona’s beach

A grey whale was nosing around looking for food a few yards away from the end of the south jetty. People were standing with their hands on their hips, looking entranced but concerned. (Their body language seemed to suggest they were worried the whale didn’t know what it was doing.)

Seagulls fought over the litter left on the sand. I walked towards the water. My first inkling that maybe this wasn’t the day for a swim was the layer of rocky detritus lining the littoral zone. Rocks and shells banged around my ankles, forming a dark line along the zone: it was as if the ocean was daring me to step into it. The waves were glassy green tubes with faces of just about 4 to maybe 5 feet, breaking in steady intervals. The waves weren’t huge, but they had a decisiveness to them that unnerved me. How you doing, mama? I murmured like Barry White to the ocean. I’m just here to have fun. Nothing big. It’s your party. I just want in for a while. I went in and instantly felt the hard suck of the undertow. I got it. It wasn’t in the mood. It wasn’t screaming get out of my room, but neither was it inviting me in. The tide was coming in and the ocean was just doing its own thing. I got my stuff, and proceeded to Pirate’s Cove. I should have just gone there first, I thought.

Pirate Cove is starboard as you enter the Newport Harbor, and is notable for its sandstone cliffs, or bluffs which I assume gave the beach its name. The crown of sandstone and a line of rocks creates a curvy little cove, that has a small beach which totally disappears during very high tides or storms. Pirate Cove became a fixed point in a shifting marine environment sometime in the 30’s because of human engineering: there is a south jetty and a north jetty, both of which were put into place during the Roosevelt administration. The Public Works Administration accomplished what all the private money in Newport couldn’t, namely, building jetties that were stable and stayed put through fierce winter storms. (Yes, Newport has fierce winter storms.) The jetties formalized the harbor entrance: how the entrance was determined way back before the jetties were built is kind of unclear. I think it was a moving target. The bay, left to its own devices, periodically developed sandbars. Some of that topography still feels present, even after years of dredging. The small beach is shallow with a really changeable floor with waves and dips that demonstrate its dynamic response to the tide. I instinctively feel that some of the sandbars must have extended from where the small beach was.

Annotated map of the Newport bay river delta, circa 1915? Photo courtesy of Douglas Westfall

Pirate Cove was derided when I was growing up as a beach for losers or babies or both. Cool kids didn’t swim in the bay in the sixties or seventies. There were some good reasons for this: the bay, even near the mouth, was nasty. The water quality sucked. Too many boats, too many damn houses, too much urban runoff with too much crap in it: too much of everything really, conspired to give Pirate Cove a dubious reputation. That was then. It is now, and has been for some time, an absolutely beautiful little beach, a little gem with smooth sand and mostly beautiful water. Sometimes, though, it get a little bay-y. Often there is plastic crap that floats in the water. And it has more litter than it did when I was growing up.

And it has a cave.

A still from DW Griffith's silent film 'Macbeth", which was filmed on location at Pirate Cove.  Photo from "Corona Del Mar - My Kind of Town", written by Douglas Westfall.

A still from D.W. Griffith’s silent film ‘Macbeth”, which was filmed on location at Pirate Cove. Photo from “Corona Del Mar – My Kind of Town”, written by Douglas Westfall.

The cave looms large in my memory because of an offhanded remark by my dad. It’s located under a shelf of overhanging sandstone and is no more than a slit, like a downturned mouth. There are impressively old-looking rusted iron bars that block the entrance. I have no idea where the cave goes, if it goes anywhere. Does it burrow underground, through a secret passage and out to sea? Does it deepen and widen into a beautiful grotto, where opal green anemones and purple sea urchins cluster? All I’ve ever been able to see behind the rusted iron bars is an impressive collection of beer bottles and litter that gets pushed in with every high tide. I think the bars only keep people out, not litter (which is a pity.)

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Dad, I asked when I was very small, maybe 4 or 5 years old. What is that? I pointed to the dark slit in the rock.
It’s a cave, he replied.
Why are there bars on it?
To keep people out. It’s dangerous.

And then he told me in words unremembered by me, but with an emphasis that carried the message explicitly, that teenagers used to party in the cave and then one day the tide came in and they all drowned. I gaped. I looked at the cave and imagined the long blonde hair, the smell of Coppertone, the flashing white teeth, the puka shells encircling the tanned necks of the heedless teenagers WHO WERE PARTYING. AND WHO DROWNED. Did they know what was happening? OR WERE THEY ON DRUGS? In any case, I believed my dad. Weird things were happening to teenagers in the late sixties and early seventies. The beach was sunny and so was the rest of Southern California, but there was darkness, too, if you knew where to look. The cave was dark, and The Teenagers ( I could never think of them any other way) had crawled into its darkness to do bad things. The lesson I took from this ghosty story was: Don’t party, especially in beach caves and you’ll be fine. This didn’t stop me from partying and doing drugs in beach caves when I was a heedless teenager, but I was responsible. I chose Little Corona because those caves were not flush with the waterline. None of my friends ever drowned. SAM_4539

The wonderful thing about Pirate Cove is the rock, that pliable, friable sandstone and sedimentary rock made of thousands of geologic years of compressed sand, clay and the chitinous exoskeletons of tiny sea creatures.  The bluffs are gorgeous— golden yellow in the late afternoon sun— and fragile. The tawny sandstone has been carved and whittled down by the ocean, the wind and the rain over thousands of years. It’s easy to gain a toehold in the round hollows of the stone crown of Pirates Cove because of years and years of beach goers swarming up and down it. It’s also easy to fall off of it.

I fell, once. I was there with my Girl Scout troop. In my recollection, I was up very high and then suddenly I was down on the sand with the wind knocked out of me. My pain was equal to the chagrin I felt. There’s no dignity to falling, especially when you’re wearing a green Girl Scout sash with no badges sewn onto it. (I was a unambitious girl scout who didn’t understand the whole badge thing. I was supposed to want one, but getting one involved doing things with people. I liked to read.)

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The cliffs of Pirate Cove.

Today I scramble up and down the cliffs (cautiously) and wonder how much longer they’ll be around. The bluffs must be the barest nub of what they once were. It’s now listed on climbing sites as a place with “juggy” and “greasy” cliffs: I have no idea what this terminology means, but I assume that climbers clambering up the sides is going to be a factor in its eventual erosion. SAM_4535

The city of Newport Beach, ever concerned with the quality of life in Newport, keeps an eagle eye out for the potential dangers of living along the coast of Newport. The report “Safety Element” which is part of the city’s general plan, takes pains to detail exactly how the shit might hit the fan in the serene and sunny city of Newport Beach. There’s an assortment of big waves that could erode beaches and ocean bluffs: tsunamis, rogue waves and storm surges are all mentioned as actors in the future of Pirate Cove and other ocean bluffs. Local tsunamis, are apparently enough of a potential reality to be discussed in this document. “Modeling off the Santa Barbara coast suggests that locally generated tsunamis can cause waves between 2 and 20 meters (6to 60 feet) high…” That could do it; that would wash some of that beautiful sandstone away. You’ll be comforted to know, by the way, that foreign tsunamis coming in from the south— say, Chile— take at least 12 hours to arrive in Newport Beach, which is plenty to get the hell out. If I’m at Pirate Cove when the call comes to flee a Chilean Tsunami, I plan on taking the Tsunami evacuation zone on Dover. I think Jamboree will be really crowded. And who wants to be in a panic on Jamboree Road? Pas moi.

Given the concern over super storms that climate change is expected to trigger and the fact that the Balboa Peninsula and Big Corona get really big surf every summer because of storms in the southern hemisphere, it’s anyone’s guess what will erode the cliffs the most, or first. Rodentia, burrowing away in bluffs? Maybe. Seismically induced slope failure caused by a strong earthquake on the Newport Inglewood fault? Back in the nineties, a mild earthquake on this fault shattered my grandmother’s china in Newport Heights. Just think of what it would do to Pirate Cove.

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Today, it was untroubled, except by climbers dusting their hands with chalk and looking speculatively at the sheer wall. Someone had left an open can of pickled jalapeno peppers (really?) for someone else to throw away. I saw the can as I was taking a picture of the Haunted Cave of The Teenagers. I snapped my picture and then prissily picked up the can and carried it to the trashcan up the stairs, making sure that everyone on the beach could see me do this. (I hate litter and I go into rages when I find it.) Boastful men stood on the rock that’s just to the left of the now unused lifeguard’s chair; in silhouette, they looked like Douglas Tilden bronze statues until they jumped, with clownish bravado, into the clear green water of the bay.

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This is actually looking west out the harbor mouth.

Sometimes the wealthy residents of Corona del Mar complain about the popularity of Big Corona and Pirate Cove, and I understand some (but, for sure, only some)of their discomfort. The litter— I can’t say this enough—is bad and seems to have gotten worse. I think because of this and the increased density in general, the fire rings suddenly became suspect three years ago and almost got completely banned. The fire rings are public resources. That is, I believe, their actual classification. Banning them was a step towards making the beach less accessible, less desirable to the masses. There are more people in Orange County now, and hence there are more people at the beach. I’ve never trusted the wealth in Newport Beach, nor have I ever liked the drive to privatize. What would it take for homeowners to try to shut down Pirate Cove? I doubt it will happen- it’s a city beach- but if it could happen anywhere in California, with its old tradition of public access for all beaches, it could happen in Newport Beach.

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I’m okay with the bars over the cave. I don’t need access to it. But I would be destroyed if there was no access to Pirate Cove. I’m not sure why I thought about that, looking at the cave and the garish red can of pickled peppers sitting in the sand next to it. The beach is loved and used and littered and battered over and over again with people, with wind, with rain and possibly in the future by ARKstorms, great mega-storms which will bear down on the little beach and its proud crown of sedimentary rock. There are always forces at work (I guess) to limit, to bar, to change. I hope this part of my world and the California coast survives most of them.

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 Many thanks to Douglas Westfall, the author of two books I plan on reading: “Corona Del Mar – My Kind of Town” and “The Costa Mesa Bluffs”.