Mar Vista resident David Johnson surfs at First Point in Malibu on Jan. 15, during a weather advisory. It began raining shortly after the end of his session. Photos by Melissa Auchard
Malibu’s dazzling blue ocean turned a murky brown after an onslaught of rain in early January. Logs, sticks and trash filled beaches along the Pacific Coast. The rain spread other debris — like leaves, twigs and pathogens — throughout the ocean.
In January, the L.A. County Department of Public Health instituted multiple health advisories after heavy rainfall in Malibu. Within the first few hours of heavy rainfall, fertilizers, oil and sewage will conglomerate into a cesspool of bacteria running into the ocean. After 72 hours, the contaminants disperse throughout the ocean, and it is safe to be in the waters again, according to the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
Ear and eye pain, diarrhea, skin rashes, cough and congestion are possible risks of swimming in the ocean when the germ count is high, according to the CDC.
During health advisories, local Malibu beaches — typically teeming with surfers — are empty or almost empty. Some surfers said they still choose to surf even when the water is contaminated.
Surfers wait patiently at First Point in Malibu for waves Jan. 15. This is a somewhat empty lineup by First Point’s busy standards, former Malibu mayor Jefferson Wagner said.
Surfer Chris Baldwin was in the water during a rainy Saturday at Malibu Surfrider Beach on Jan. 14.
“It’s always a risk,” Baldwin said in a wetsuit and hood under the pouring rain.
On Jan. 12, the Beach Report Card gave the water quality at Malibu Surfrider Beach a “D” grade. The grades worsen in water quality from A to F. Grade F days are associated with a face with a squiggly-line mouth and x’s for eyes.
A surfer paddles out to First Point on a gloomy day in Malibu on Jan. 15. The hills behind the pier turned from a dry brown to a luscious green in January after heavy rain.
The waves during the stormy days of Jan. 12 and 13, were breaking at five feet, according to footage from Surfline. Days like those, Baldwin said, can’t be missed, even in bad-quality waters.
“What are you gonna do when we’re getting the swell we are?” Baldwin said.
Seagulls and surfers populate Malibu Surfrider Beach on Jan. 15. David Johnson catches a ride down towards the pier. Video by Melissa Auchard
Former mayor of Malibu and owner Zuma Jay’s Surf Shop, Jefferson Wagner, has been surfing since the 1960s. Wagner said the rain also won’t stop him from paddling out.
“If the crowd is minimal and the waves are great, I’m gonna charge it,” Wagner said.
A surfer rides a wave at First Point in Malibu on Jan. 15. The waves were five feet or larger a couple of days before.
Wagner said he’s had at least five infections in 20 years as a result of surfing in contaminated water. None of his illnesses were unbearable, he said. Wagner referred to the infections as “five-day hassles,” meaning the first day was the peak of the pain, and by the fifth day, the pain subsided completely.
To prevent infection, Wagner checks the L.A. County water quality reports often, and he surfs in areas that do not have large outfalls, which are most likely to contain dangerous pathogens, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The U.S. EPA suggests beach users check for signs indicating water quality and avoid swallowing water and swimming with open wounds to stay clear of illness.
A shortboarder walks along Malibu Surfrider Beach examining the waves Jan. 15. The water ahead is murky and brown after rainfall in Malibu.
A surfer of 20 years, David Johnson said he’s never heard of anyone getting sick from surfing in the rain. Johnson surfed First Point at Malibu Surfrider Beach on Jan. 15, only one day after heavy rainfall.
“Malibu, you can kind of surf it, especially at that size, and never put your head underwater, if you’re a good surfer,” Johnson said.
Like Baldwin and Wagner, Johnson said the waves are worth the risk.
“If the waves are really good, I’ll take my chances, I suppose,” Johnson said.
Despite the risks of surfing in wet weather, surfers said they won’t miss a good swell.
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