Stephen Bay's Photography Blog

Exploring and Photographing Sea Caves in San Diego

I’ve been photographing the sea caves around San Diego for the past several years. They are one of my favorite subjects, I really enjoy finding, exploring, and photographing them. To me, discovering a new cave is like coming across a hidden pirate’s treasure. I’m not sure why i’m so drawn to the caves but they’ve always seemed like a comfortable space offering a bit of protection from the elements and yet providing a view to the outside. Also I’m not the least bit claustrophobic!

Sea cave located in Sunset Cliffs My favorite sea cave.

I get a lot of questions about the caves in San Diego, so I’m going to try and answer them to the best of my ability.

Where are the caves located?

Sea caves are formed when the crashing waves erode the rock along the base of a cliff, typically starting in a crack or area of softer rock. In San Diego, this means that anywhere you can find sandstone cliffs (e.g. La Jolla, Point Loma, Sunset Cliffs), you can find sea caves. I used to think that the caves were rare and hard to find but I quickly realized they are everywhere. My best guess is there’s at least one cave for every hundred yards of coast (where there’s sandstone cliffs).

Large sea cave located in Sunset Cliffs

How do I find and explore the caves safely?

You don’t. There’s no way to be completely safe while exploring for caves. My recommendation is that you don’t go at all and you just look at other people’s pictures. Exploring caves is risky and the three biggest safety concerns are:

  1. You slip and fall while scrambling around the rocky coast.
  2. You get hit by falling rocks from the cliff top or there is a cliff collapse.
  3. You get caught by the tide with no way back to safety.

Sea cave located in Sunset Cliffs This is the coastline at Sunset Cliffs and is typical of the areas you may need to traverse to find sea caves. Note the large rocks which will make travel across them slow and will put you at risk of a fall.

Rockfall in La Jolla Falling rocks and collapsed cliffs are exceedingly common in San Diego. Always walk away from the cliffs.

Two photographers caught by an incoming tide after exploring a sea cave If you are not careful while exploring, you could be caught by an incoming tide with your exit route blocked. You are then at risk of being swept out to sea by a wave or knocked off the rocks with a potential fall. Images provided by Lourdes Araiza Beltran.

If you insist on exploring and searching for caves, here are some tips:

  • Go scouting during the day by walking along the coast at a low or negative tide.
  • While walking pay attention to the terrain. You don’t want to get cut off from your exit if the tide starts coming in.
  • Look at the tide chart beforehand and set a time for when you must leave the area. Do not overextend your stay.
  • Check the surf height and do not walk near or through the water when conditions are rougher than gentle waves.
  • If you can see the cave opening from a safe spot, go at different times and check at what tide levels the cave can be accessed.
  • If you have any doubt at all about traversing an area, turn back.
  • Sometimes it is easier to walk through the water than to scramble over uneven rocks.
  • Do not go into the water until at least several days after a rainfall. The rain washes contaminants from the sewers into the ocean and may create dangerous levels of bacteria.
  • Watch for algae growing on the rocks as this makes them extremely slippery. The algae varies in color and may be bright green to a dark black.
  • While walking along the coast, do not walk near the cliffs due to rock falls. The cliffs around San Diego frequently collapse and people have died.
  • Go with a friend who is also physically capable of cave exploring.

Black algae on the rocks can be very slippery Black algae on the rocks can be very slippery and hard to see especially if the rocks are wet.

What type of equipment should I have for exploring sea caves?

Here is the equipment that I typically use:

  • Climbing helmet. This can help protect your head from small falling rocks or bumping against the ceiling. These are not expensive and may cost perhaps $50-70 at your local outdoor equipment store. They are similar to bike helmets except they have a harder plastic outer shell.
  • Closed toed sandals or water shoes. Without these, your feet will get cut and scraped when you are traversing rocky terrain.
  • Waterproof bag. I take a waterproof bad to hold my camera gear and personal items. Even if the tide is low and the area you are going does not require deep wading, they are still helpful as it is possible to fall. I use the Big Creek backpack made by Watershed which is fully submersible. This is better than the standard roll-top dry bag you often see used in sports like kayaking. I have even used my backpack to access areas by swimming.
  • Walking stick. I find a walking stick helps tremendously with balance when scrambling over uneven rocks. They are also useful when probing the water to see how deep it is. Normally I use my tripod but if wasn’t bringing that, I would use a standard hiking stick.
  • Phone. Hopefully you’ll never need to use it. But bring it just in case. Keep it in a waterproof bag.
  • Headlamp. I generally stay near the entrance of the cave but if you go deeper inside there will be no light. The headlamp is also useful for making your way back if you photographed sunset and it’s getting dark afterwords.

Climbing helmet, waterproof dry bag, closed toed sandals, headlamp From left to right: closed toed sandals, submersible dry bag, headlamp, climbing helmet.

Where can I find the tide levels for San Diego?

I recommend the NOAA website which will give you forecasted tide levels down to the minute.

Tide height provided by NOAA Tide height chart provided by NOAA. Set the data interval to 1 minute and get precise forecasts.

If I am planning to photograph sunset at a cave, I will check tide height at 15 and 30 minutes after sunset. Fifteen minutes post sunset is usually when there is peak color burn and 30 minutes is when I expect to be out of the area completely.

Can you tell me the exact location of a cave and how to get to it?

No. See the next question for why I don’t disclose locations.

Should I share the location of a cave I found?

No. I strongly recommend you do not disclose the location of any caves you find. For two reasons:

  1. People who are unprepared may try to visit the cave and find it beyond their physical ability. They may get injured or stranded.
  2. The cave may be defaced or vandalized if it’s location is publically known. I have seen this first hand with some of the more well known caves. The walls are now covered with carvings or spray painted with graffiti.

How do I photograph a sea cave?

Photographing a sea cave can be very difficult as they are often small cramped spaces with dark insides. But assuming you’re inside and photographing out of the opening, here are some tips:

  • You need a wide angle lens. On a full frame camera I would bring a 16-35 zoom or wider lens. Even 16mm is sometimes not enough.
  • Shoot in RAW and use a tripod.
  • Watch for lens flare. The opening of the cave is going to be a lot brighter than the inside and this can result in flare spots across your image. To minimize this, clean the front of your lens but even then you may need to remove flare spots in post.
  • Bracket your exposures. I like to start with an exposure that’s good for the dark interior. I shoot mirrorless so I can just look at the live view display (or histogram) but if you are using a DSLR you can take a test shot and review. I then decrease exposure (shutter speed) in one-stop increments until the outside is perfectly exposed. I double check to make sure that my brightest image has good shadow detail on the cave walls and that my darkest image doesn’t have any burned out areas in the sky. When you get back home you can decide on whether to process a single photo or to use exposure blending / HDR.
  • Use a small aperture like f/11 to maximize your DOF and focus a few feet in front of you on the cave wall (ideally at the hyperfocal distance). Review the shot to make sure the cave is sharp from front to back.

Bracketing exposures for photographing a cave Bracket your exposures inside the cave. Start with a good exposure for the cave walls and then decrease the shutter speed in 1-stop increments.

Sometimes you may find that your lens is simply not wide enough and you cannot fit the opening in the frame. For example, in the picture below the cave had a main entrance and an open ceiling directly overhead. I moved to the far back corner of the cave but still could not capture everything in one frame with my 16-35mm zoom lens. To deal with this, I made a panorama with two frames by tilting the camera upwards after my first shot to get the ceiling. In post-processing, I used Lightroom’s merge to panorama function to stitch the two images together.

Open ceiling sea cave in Sunset Cliffs If you cannot fit the cave opening (or openings) in one frame you can take a panorama and stitch your images together in order to get a wider view.

Base image for panorama Base image for panorama

The two base images used to create the panorama.

How do I process my image files?

The primary challenge is dealing with the wide dynamic range of the scene: i.e. the opening of the cave is much brighter than the interior. Watch the video below for an example of how I selected a single image from my bracketed set and processed it.

As an alternative to processing a single (usually darker image) you can also combine multiple exposures (either through exposure blending or HDR). Combining shots will result in better image quality (less noise in the shadows) but requires more editing work.

Can I fly my drone inside a cave?

I have never flown a drone before but when I was inside one of the larger caves another photographer tried to launch their Mavic. They lost control and almost flew into another person and then hit the wall. So my answer is no, flying is not recommended.

Last Words

Exploring sea caves can be fun but there’s also a bit of risk involved. If you haven’t spent much time at the coast, I’d recommend forgetting about caves and just begin by exploring tidepools. Once you are comfortable with the coast, you can then start looking for caves.

I’ll end this post by including some more photos of caves.

The Rum Runner’s cave The infamous Rum Runners Cave. The rumor is that the cave was used to smuggle alcohol and guns from Mexico during prohibition.

The Milky Way core viewed from a sea cave The Milky Way as viewed from a cave. This photo was extremely difficult to pull off due to the light pollution from the city combined with the humid air which reduces visibility.

Sea Cave in La Jolla Sea cave located in La Jolla.

Channel between two large rock formations. This last photo isn’t actually a sea cave, but while you are exploring you may discover rock formations that look and feel similar to being inside a cave.

This article was originally published on Nov 2, 2020.

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