Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 28, 2018

Water-Gazer on an Urban Beach

The cities of southern California have an enormously popular asset: They’re adjacent to ocean beaches. Quite a few other places in the world can make the same claim — Barcelona; the French and Italian Rivieras; Rio de Janeiro; cities in Australia and Florida — and they’re important to both residents and tourists. Urban beaches like our SoCal ones have an extremely different vibe than, say, the wilder, less-frequented ones a thousand miles to the north in Oregon and Washington.

Oregon beach Brad Nixon 1874 (640x480)

Urban beaches like ours along Santa Monica Bay of Los Angeles have parking areas, restrooms and lifeguards. At the edge of the sand is a paved walkway popular with runners, cyclists and skaters, “the Strand.” And, as I’ve written before, many have piers for fishing and recreation. Redondo’s has shops and restaurants, as well as fishing.

Redondo Beach Pier Brad Nixon 3044 (640x414)

LA County Beaches and Harbors grooms the sand with tractors to keep it reasonably free of litter and provides — of course, this is California — volleyball nets.

Redondo volleyball Brad Nixon 8666 (640x491)

Most of all, unlike those empty beaches of the Pacific Northwest, urban beaches are visited by a lots of people, sometimes hordes of them. Not so much, though, on a winter weekday afternoon, as in this photograph I shot a few days ago on Redondo Beach, southwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Redondo Beach Brad Nixon (640x478)

An excellent day to walk or run, contemplate whatever thoughts the vastness of the ocean suggests, all the while scanning the surf line for a glimpse of dolphins, or the horizon for the distant spout of a whale.

There’s always some number of people: sitting solo or in pairs, small groups exercising or practicing yoga, an ever-changing opportunity for people-watching. The beach is a popular spot for couples posing for wedding photos, even on that breezy, chilly day this week, the bride obviously miserable in her sleeveless white gown, probably impatient that the photographer just get on with it (below, being lifted up by the groom, also dressed in white).

Bridal couple Brad Nixon (640x436)

One watches not only the water for wildlife, but the air. I’ve seen thousands of them, but I never tire of watching flights of pelicans on their way to the next fishing spot.

Pelican flight Brad Nixon 5794 (640x480)

Just as graceful in the air, though smaller, on that windy day the gulls seemed satisfied to hunker down on the beach.

Seagulls Brad Nixon 3 (640x461)

They’re all facing the same way, watching the ocean. We’re all, as Melville observed, “water-gazers.” An urban beach might not have the windswept, craggy aspect of the world’s wilder shores, but it draws us there. Whether it’s for wedding photos, exercise or simply to look and ponder, we want to be there.

My old friend, Algernon Swinburne, would probably not think much of my tame urban beach on its genuinely pacific ocean. Raised on his grandfather’s estate along the storm-wracked coast of Northumberland (to borrow a bit of his wonted hyperbole), he was utterly enthralled by the wild sea, desolate beaches and moors, the ceaseless surf.

Slowly, gladly, full of peace and Swonder
Grows his heart who journeys here alone
Earth and all its thoughts of earth sink under
Deep as deep in water sinks a stone.
Hardly knows it if the rollers thunder,
Hardly whence the lonely wind is blown.

One doesn’t always need a lonely wind or thundering rollers, Algernon. It’s still the beach.

Which Leads Me to a Question

What is it? What pulls us toward those beaches? Why do you go? Is it simply a variety of the same urge we feel to climb a mountain path, descend into a rocky canyon or hike through the sagebrush and cacti of a desert? This is a theme I’m exploring this year: What are we looking for in those places? Do we bring something back with us we didn’t possess? Do we leave something there we feel well rid of?

What do you say? I’d like your opinion. I know you have one, because everyone who reads this blog is a traveler of one type or another … a seeker. Is going to the ocean different from going to the desert (I know it’s not just the sand), or something quintessentially distinctive? Are you equally as happy on a deserted beach as on one thronged with summer holiday revelers? What takes you there, and what do you take back with you?

More to come in this consideration of beaches. Leave your contribution in a comment. Thank you.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Lines from “By the North Sea” by Charles Algernon Swinburne, 1880.


  1. Looks like my kind of place!


  2. Yes, Algernon, it is still a beach and still in nature … Your post reminded me of a John Muir quote: “In every walk in nature one receives far more than he seeks.” That leads to two questions: What were you seeking? and What did you find? I look forward to more posts on your nature theme.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the words from Mr. Muir, whose work I look forward to reading more of.


  3. I admit it. I’m lucky. I live in Southern California. In 15-20 minutes I can drive to any one of several nice beaches.

    My fav is Laguna Beach. For me, it’s all about the scenery. Just getting there is half the fun. Driving down Laguna Canyon via rte. 133 is like driving through a 3D Courbet landscape painting. Steep cliffs, rocks, trees, a profusion of vegetation and grasses. Stunning. I’m glad my wife drives so that I can just get lost in the awe-inspiring wonder of it all.

    Then there’s the beach: sharp, craggy cliffs — of zinc white, yellow and orange ochres, and pale grays, topped with green, orange, and red succulent desert vegetation — jutting out into the ocean. Gentle waves of emerald green and sapphire blue hues lapping up on the white sandy beach. A few white gulls passing overhead. Ah, Nature!


    • One can detect the painter’s eye in those descriptions. What would Gaugin do if he were stuck in that rough, rugged dry Mediterranean landscape? I know … move to Tahiti!


      • Yeah, not sure he ever went that far south. Had a big dust up with Van Gogh in Arles, and THAT got him to Tahiti. Well, sort of. I skipped a couple-a steps. 😄


      • Better to look at the paintings than worry too much about biography!


  4. For me, the lure of the beach is the ocean. If I do focus on the beach, it’s to find what the sea has thrown onshore. Like fire, the ocean changes from moment to moment, yet always is the same. Its rhythms never bore me, and its shifting tide lines, shore lines, and dune lines are infinitely interesting.

    In its simplicity, Longfellow’s poem captures it best, especially in this second stanza:

    Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
    But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
    The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
    Efface the footprints in the sands,
    And the tide rises, the tide falls.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Footprints that perhaps some other
      Traveling o’er life’s stormy main,
      A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
      Seeing, may take hope again.
      Now, that’s from memory, Mrs. Drake’s class, 50 years ago, so it may have some errors. Thanks. We’re probably the only 2 people on the planet quoting Longfellow right now.
      Stand by for more of what it is “the sea has thrown onshore.” next post. Thanks for the comment, and the the ocean like fire.

      Liked by 1 person

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