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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Beautiful and Dangerous: Monastery Beach, Carmel, CA

We begin with a word of warning. Hubby and I basically stumbled upon Monastery Beach when we learned the China Cove hiking trail at Point Lobos was closed for restoration work. Not wanting to waste the one hour and 45 minute drive down to Carmel we decided to visit Monastery Beach (aka Carmel River State Beach).

It has to be one of the most beautiful beaches on the west coast.

But it's also one of the most dangerous. At least 30 people have died here. Many were attempting to rescue others.

At the beach there is:
  • No Lifeguard
  • No Swimming
  • No Wading
  • No Fishing
  • No Climbing on Rocks
  • No Sea Shell Collecting
You can:
  • Scuba Dive if you're an advanced diver. Be sure to look for the sign above before entering the water for tips on entry and exit locations and techniques.
  • Sit and look at the ocean
  • Beach Comb above the berm and take pictures of what you find
  • Build fires
  • Play on the sand
  • Bring your leashed dog

Due to numerous drownings it's earned the nickname Mortuary Beach.

If you want to swim go to Carmel Beach (map) at the end of Ocean Avenue. It's just 3.7 miles away by car and it takes less than ten minutes to get there. It's much safer for swimming or walking right along the shoreline so why take the risk by going in or even near the water at Monastery?

The signs say if you see anyone in distress:
  1. Do not attempt to rescue them
  2. Direct them to crawl to dry sand or to swim out past the breaking waves
  3. Call 911
  4. Do not lose sight of the person.
  5. Wait for rescue personal

I wanted to visit a beach to practice shooting. Specifically I wanted to use my fastest shutter speed to capture moving waves, flying birds, and I wanted to photograph very pretty water.

With its short, curved beach, sea foam green, Curacao and inky blue waters, a shore uncluttered by rock formations, and a cove-like geography, Monastery makes you feel as if you're in the Caribbean and that the water is both warmer and safer than it actually is.

My friend Ken loaned me his GF2 wide angle lens to try it out to see if I need one. This is the widest angle I can get out of my 14-140mm zoom lens. Here you can't tell that the beach looks like it's in a shallow cove. But with a wider angle lens you can.

This is Ken's lens. Look at the difference! It's so dramatic. I'm thinking a wide angle lens will finish off my collection of lenses quite nicely. It's not cheap though. This one costs $954.00.

 It gave me the same 180ยบ view as my little iPhone fisheye but without the black, round, framing.

There are several signs spaced along the beach that let you know where you are. . .

And the dangers of being there. Thanks to resident and diver Frank Koucky's efforts in 2008 the signs were improved to include this graphic.

Yet even with the signs I still saw people walking too close to the water the day we were there. The beach is flat until you hit the end of the berm. Then it dips on a steep grade directly into the water. Only advanced divers should attempt to scuba dive here and only when conditions are optimal. Nobody else should be swimming or wading in these waters.

The water can look so tempting and beautiful you'll yearn to walk barefoot along the shore. But seconds later the next set of waves can be much larger than the previous. Small kids in particular can be knocked down by even these larger everyday waves. Once down they can easily be pulled out to see in the backwash.

Though it looks like I was at the water's edge all of the close-up photos you'll see in this post were taken from the behind the berm safe-zone with my zoom lenses.

The same spot photographed moments apart.

Another set of small and larger waves. We didn't see any rogue or sneaker waves that day but the signs up and down the beach warn to never turn your back to the water. In 1986 a family of four did to take a picture with the ocean as their backdrop. The mom was the first swept out to sea by a rogue, ten foot wave. The husband son and daughter tried to save her and were swept out by a second large wave :( The mother, father and son drowned immediately while the youngest, a daughter, was rescued then lingered in a coma. Tragically, she died two days later.

We saw two scuba divers while we there. I got the chance to talk to them as they exited the water (somewhat out of breath as entry and exiting the surf is challenging at this particular beach) and asked what did they see down there? They replied lots of colorful anemones and invertebrates, some fish, large crab and abalone.

Back on shore I perused the clumps of kelp that had been washed up on shore. Here is just a small sampling of the kinds of seaweeds and shells I found in the safe zone beyond the top of the berm.

This red-orange shell was really pretty and tiny! I wasn't sure if shell collecting was legal at this beach or not so I took photos then put this little shell back. ETA: I contacted the Parks Department later and found out it is illegal to take anything from a State Beach so please just take pictures, not shells when you visit. Leave the beach as you found it. The only exception is to pick up litter left by others.

My favorites were the baby sea urchins. Look how little they were! The smallest one on the lower right was dead. I could tell because its spines were missing and it was hollow when I flipped it over. After photographing them I put them back by tucking them back under a piece of kelp to protect them from the sun and predators.

Another dead sea urchin. It's spines were purple and its shell was empty when I flipped it over.

This is what the underside of a live sea urchin looks like when you flip it over. See how it's clamped shut instead of hollow looking? This is why it's a good idea not to take home shells if you don't know what you're looking at. Often times the animal is still alive or can draw in and hide itself so that you think it's not alive when really it is.

A perfect green shell with no spines or occupant.

For scale I photographed it on my fingertip. It was so tiny!

There weren't many birds there but I was happy to capture this shot of a passing sea gull.

I'd brought my tripod but quickly realized that by setting my shutter speed to the fastest speed possible and upping my ISO just a bit, I didn't need it.

The sprays were dramatic.

But my favorites were the sea foam green waves that curled over themselves showing the tunnel like effect of the underside of the waves. This is my favorite wave shot from that day.

I also loved how the suspended-in-mid-wave kelp looks in this shot.

A reminder about why you shouldn't let small children be near the water.

Another powerful wave coming in to shore.


So if you go to Monastery Beach please visit it safely. The necessary steps to do so are clearly marked and it just isn't worth any risk taking when there are many other beaches in the area Carmel Beach, Monterey State Beach, and Santa Cruz Beach where you can safely swim and wade.

You'll find Monastery Beach at the most southern end of Carmel River State Beach just east of the entrance to Point Lobos State Reserve on the coast side of Highway 1 across from the Carmelite Monastery. CLICK HERE to view on Google Maps

The beach is open from 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM

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