A wave of Southern California beach headlines swept in during 2020


Southern California beaches, the hundreds of miles of coastline that are one of the defining characteristics of the Golden State, weren’t just a place in 2020 to take a dip into the cool ocean or lay out a towel and relax on the warm sand.

In 2020, the coastline became a reflection of how Southern Californians coped with, and reacted to, the coronavirus pandemic that shifted our culture this year.

In some coastal towns, beaches were the line in the sand drawn by those who argued people needed a place to get outside verses government orders meant to keep crowds at bay.

But the beaches also became a seemingly magical place for several weeks as the ocean waters turned a neon blue at night, a rare bioluminescence phenomenon adding a spark of excitement to the monotony of staying at home.

With youth sports shut down and people having more time on their hands, surfing surged. And as a cheap option for entertainment, beaches became an even more popular playground – but with those crowds came trash, much of it left behind.

Here are some of the top stories that touched our shoreline in 2020:

A sign on the beach informs visitors that the Seal Beach Pier and beach area in Seal Beach are now closed to the public due to the coronavirus concerns and the gathering of numerous people in public areas on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Battle at the beach

The beaches were barren for days and even weeks earlier this year, more like a desert with miles of empty sand.

When the state’s stay-at-home order came down in March, Los Angeles County ordered its beaches closed, and Long Beach, Seal Beach and Laguna Beach followed.

Not everyone wanted to comply, and at least one surfer was made an example of when police met him on the sand in Manhattan Beach. In Malibu, a stand-up paddler was seen on video evading a police boat until he didn’t and was taken into custody by officers.

Some beaches stayed open with “soft closures,” shutting down parking lots to discourage visitors outside the nearby community, but still allowing people to use the coast.

And then the term “active recreation” entered our lexicon, the mantra adopted by officials who didn’t want to close off access for escaping the indoors, but also didn’t want beachgoers hanging out or sunbathing in close proximity to others. No building sand castles with your kids. You had to be exercising with only a handful of can-do’s making the cut, such as walking, jogging or surfing.

With different jurisdictions managing various stretches of coast, the rules about what was allowed and what wasn’t was beyond confusing. Beaches that remained open in Orange County became inundated with out-of-towners who couldn’t go to their own local beaches.

By the end of April, Gov. Gavin Newsom had ordered a hard closure of all Orange County beaches.

Huntington Beach and Dana Point went to court over the orders, with support from Newport Beach, but the judge sided with the governor’s executive order. And within a week of the closure, cities had worked out plans with the state and reopened with those “active recreation” rules in place.

For the remainder of the summer, except for a temporary shutdown of most beaches during the  Fourth of July weekend, beaches were left open – and still remain open – for people to enjoy.

Scores of surfers hit the waves at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point on Wednesday, September 16, 2020. Surfing is more popular than ever before, with crowded line ups along the coast, especially this year as the pandemic has sent active people seeking fresh air to the beach.(Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

A popular option

When businesses began to reopen, one sector had customers flooding in – surfboards were flying off the racks at surf shops.

It was an unexpected bright spot in the pandemic as people wanted to get outside, but had few options. New surfers flocked to the ocean to try riding waves in a place they felt safe.

The surge in popularity was not without its downside, longtime surfers chaffed at the influx of newbies they had to share waves with at their favorite surf spots.

More people at the beach, not just in the water but on the sand, created another problem, an uptick in waste from food take out and face masks littering the beach.

A beach clean up through the month of September tallied food take-out items in the Top 10 of trash found for the first time in years. Face masks and gloves also joined the list of most common trash removed.

The problem wasn’t just from intentional litter, but so many people were flocking to the beach that workers couldn’t keep up with the overflowing trash bins. In Los Angeles County, a marketing message “pack in, pack out” was launched to encourage people to take their trash with them as they left the beach.

Glowing, neon waves have showed up off the Southern California coast this year, this shot from Manhattan Beach Pier. (Photo courtesy of Mark Girardeau)

A neon bright spot

The early days of the shutdown were downright depressing for people stuck at home – but a mysterious glowing ocean gave people something to marvel.

A bioluminescent algae bloom showed up for more than a month just weeks after the early stay-at-home order, one of the largest of its kind off local waters in about a decade. The rare phenomenon turns the ocean red by day, but makes waves glow at night.

It wasn’t easy to track, each night currents shifting the sea, sometime making the glow strong from Huntington Beach down to San Clemente, other nights in the South Bay, where beaches were closed but people watched from the boardwalk as ethereal blue waves crashed ashore.

Photographers and videographers captured mind-blowing images, everything from glowing dolphins following a boat to the neon ripples of an ocean cannonball.

The bright blue waves were beautiful, giving people a needed distraction, something to seek out, an adventure amid the monotony that came with the stay-at-home orders. Each night, the buzz grew as spectators tried to space out on the sand to see it first-hand, getting a glimpse at Mother Nature’s light show.

And then after more than a month, the glowing waves disappeared into the dark night.

Surf contests resume

Pro surfing was put on hold for most of the year until a few weeks ago when the world’s top athletes battled it out in Hawaii.

In true 2020 fashion, it wasn’t a smooth ride for the contest. The women’s event was put on hold and then moved to another island after a recreational surfer was killed by a shark near the Maui contest site.

The men’s event at Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu was also suspended after a few positive coronavirus cases showed up within the World Surf League ranks.

But when it did resume, the action continued with Hawaii’s John John Florence finally earning the prestigious Pipe Masters win at his home break. Tyler Wright earned a historic win at what became the women’s first-ever event at Pipeline.

Pro surfing will have a new format as the competitive year gets underway, including the return of an event at Lower Trestles south of San Clemente. And, it won’t just be any contest at the popular beach, but a winner-takes-all, surf-off final event that will determine next year’s champion.

Surfing will also, hopefully, debut on the Olympic stage, after the Tokyo Games slotted to happen last summer were postponed. There will be plenty to cheer for, including Team USA, represented by Florence and fellow Hawaiian Carissa Moore, as well as Florida-native turned San Clemente resident Caroline Marks and San Clemente’s very own Kolohe Andino.

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