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Pier review: Remains of the day at La Jolla Shores

Piecing together a bit of La Jolla Shores history demands that one look both above and below the waterline.

It was 79 years ago, in 1926, that ground was broken at La Jolla Shores for a beach and yacht club on the present site of the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club. To investors, it seemed like a good idea. You know the story---build a marina, and they will come. All you have to do is some dredging.

The pier and hotel are open for business but dredging an opening from the marina to the ocean has been abandoned. (unknown photographer, date)

Long story short, two breakwaters were proposed from Alligator Head (at the Cove) northward to tame the surf, thereby creating a safe entrance to the harbor. However, between the sticker shock for the project and discovery of the submarine canyon under the would-be breakwaters, the entrepreneurs in question threw in the (beach) towel and abandoned the yachting aspect. 

Still, the  La Jolla Beach & Yacht Club concept soldiered on with the construction of a hotel and adjoining pier. The pier is little remembered today, and I have found no one to offer details of its inception and demise. From the few existing historical documents and photos, I estimate the hotel and pier opened sometime in 1929, alas another unfortunate business decision because of its synchronous timing with the infamous stock market crash. Under these trying circumstances, it is unclear whether the pier was maintained or left to fend for itself. Certainly, the public's interest in vacationing must have taken a nosedive.

Confident of their idea, Beach & Yacht Club investors (prematurely) had an architectural firm create a rendering of the marina concept. (unknown author, date)

At some point in the early 1930s, the pier disappeared from the photo records. Mounting financial problems finally forced the club’s investors to fish for another buyer. Thus, March 1934, with new owners (tennis aficionados!) entrenched, began the era of the now-renamed La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club.

All these decades later, vestiges of the pier remain. In summers where good visibility meets calm water, I see remnants of the pier gravesite while snorkeling the area. Depending on the sand's ebb and flow, railroad ties, which were used as pier supports, may be more or less exposed from year to year. The ties themselves are now a habitat that supports a thick algal turf for sponges, bryozoans, and barnacles to attach and good hiding for fish like blennies, sculpin, halibut, and stingrays. Sometimes I'll see bright-red kelp crabs clamped onto a post, tearing off clumps of encrusting algae and stuffing the salad into its mouth.

Pier remains provide snorkelers an underwater archaeology adventure, and when viewed up close, a dense community of life. c.2009  Judith Garfield

After concluding that the site had never been mapped, I waited for a particularly good reveal, then called my friend, Spence, a civil engineer to help visualize the layout of the remains in a more concrete way. We descended with scuba gear and stretched a measuring tape across one rail tie, securing it around one end to determine length. When we tried to remove the tape, it wouldn't budge for a small octopus claiming ownership. After some tug-o-war, the cephalopod liberated the tape from its suckers, and we established the metal remnants at about 15-feet-long each. Based on the completed map, it appears the pier gave way right where it stood. We estimate the site at 20-feet wide and 100-feet long, although the standing pier was longer.

Whether this area marks the scope of the sunken pier ruins remains murky. Clearly, however, there can be no mystery that visitors who strolled the pier's walkway during its heyday experienced an incomparable topside vista. These days the pier retains a unique panorama, albeit under water, for visitors who instead must don a diving mask and swim its length. 

— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to