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Sonoma and Marin county beaches closed as tsunami from distant Pacific hits California coast

The greatest tsunami threat to the California coast in more than a decade closed beaches in Sonoma and Marin counties Saturday and prompted daylong safety warnings urging people to avoid a seashore that churned and surged for hours after a violent underwater volcanic explosion in the South Pacific more than 5,000 miles away.

The beach closures were only marginally effective at turning away visitors who came to the coast on an otherwise mild January day to see the spectacle unleashed on local shores.

At Sonoma Coast State Park, that show included heavy waves crashing into rock abutments and frothing high up past the normal tideline. A pod of bottlenose dolphins was spotted surfing through swells in the lineup.

The tsunami advisory issued before sunrise for the entire West Coast remained in effect Saturday night. Gauges along the California coast reported tidal surges of more than 3 feet, and videos showed coastal inlets brimming with ocean water in Marin and Santa Cruz counties.

Even weather experts were impressed.

“It goes to show the force of these currents because of the underwater eruption,” said Jeff Lorber, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Monterey.

No major damage was reported in the state.

“I’ve seen a bunch of reports from Santa Cruz,” Lorber said. “That seems to be where the largest impacts are, flooding of roadways there, parking lots.”

The epicenter of the energy was a massive volcanic eruption near the Tonga Islands about 8 p.m. Pacific time Friday.

Satellite video and images showed a cataclysmic blast boiling from the sea high up into the atmosphere, emitting a shock wave that jolted island witnesses miles away.

Coastal communities from New Zealand to Hawaii and British Columbia to Japan were put on high alert, waiting for the arrival of swells seen as potentially hazardous for boaters, swimmers or others living and working close to the shoreline.

The tsunami rippled onto the California coast starting about 8 a.m., with surge activity and heavier surf reported from the Central Coast up to the Bay Area.

Residents, advised to stay off beaches, piers, docks and jetties, nonetheless came to the coast and nearby estuaries to witness it all.

In Santa Cruz County, people shared videos of waterways, including Soquel Creek and the San Lorenzo River, flowing backward due to incoming water from the tidal surge.

The Sonoma Coast has no official tidal gauge, but measurements from Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County put the surge at 2.9 feet above mean wave height, while at Arena Cove in Mendocino County a later surge hit 3.7 feet above the median wave height, said Dave Snider, tsunami warning coordinator with the National Tsunami Warning Center.

Snider said the warning center had received no reports of injuries or death, and only minor reports about property damage.

“(It’s) wonderful, but we also know the initial investigation into damage is probably pretty early,” he said. “Hopefully, there’s not much.”

“We’re hoping the worst of the impacts is over,” Lorber said. Tides had mostly declined after the high tides of Saturday morning, he said.

The next high tide was forecast for 11 p.m. Saturday, Lorber said, and was not expected to be as high as the earlier high tide.

Rivers that drain to the Sonoma Coast, including the Russian and Gualala, did not see any significant change in near-shore levels as a result of the surges.

Saturday’s tsunami advisory was the first the Bay Area has experienced since 2018, though Lorber said that event expired more quickly and was less severe.

The tsunami triggered in 2011 by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan — and the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — did at least $48 million in damage to California harbors, mainly in Crescent City, as well as Fort Bragg and Santa Cruz.

Crescent City, in Del Norte County, has a long and tragic association with tsunamis. Since 1933, the city 20 miles south of the Oregon border has been hit by about three dozen of them, the worst in 1964 when an ocean surge spawned by the magnitude 9.2 Great Alaska Earthquake nearly wiped downtown off the map. Eleven people were killed by the rushing waters.

Crescent City’s highest surge Saturday measured at 3.7 feet above the mean tide, according to Snider.

At the Sonoma Coast, surges that resembled a king tide mostly yielded impressive whitewater displays as they crashed onto outlying rocks. From Bodega Bay to just south of Jenner, gaggles of day-trippers and locals congregated to take in the views, while officials with the Sonoma Coast State Park and Sonoma County Regional Parks made efforts to keep them off the beaches.

Sonoma County closed the Doran Beach parking lot in the morning and restricted access to its other coastal access trails and parks. Campers at Doran Beach were warned about the predicted surge, but were not evacuated, said Meda Freeman, Regional Parks’ spokeswoman.

Federal authorities closed the beaches of Point Reyes National Seashore, announcing the precautionary move in a 9 a.m. Twitter post that cited the tsunami advisory.

“We will let you know as soon as they are reopened. Please have a safe day!” the tweet read.

State Parks rangers in Sonoma County, meanwhile, had no easy task Saturday patrolling the busiest 17 miles of park coastline on a day when curiosity and accommodating weather beckoned visitors to every pullout and stretch of open sand.

They watched the surf, fished and wandered onto the beach if they dared — or weren’t shooed away.

“All beaches are closed,” a State Parks ranger called over a loudspeaker before noon to a half-dozen people wandering around North Salmon Creek Beach. The ranger told visitors they were permitted to look on from the parking lot, situated at a higher elevation.

That’s where Kathy and Gary Matsumoto paused for a few minutes with their granddaughters, Teagan and Quinn, admiring the rows of waves breaking along the uninterrupted stretch of beach.

The couple own part of a timeshare in Windsor, they said, and were visiting from Sacramento. They had heard news of the volcanic eruption last Friday night, but had decided to still make the trek to the coast the following morning with a goal to spend the day at the beach, building sand castles.

Instead, their sand toys sat unused in their vehicle. Strong winds buffeted those standing in the parking lot and passing drivers, but the Matsumotos' spirits were still high.

“It’s disappointing, but it’s still beautiful out here,” said Kathy Matsumoto. “It’s worth the drive.”

Farther north, Shannon and Andy Amaya were motioned away by a ranger from the rocks where they and others were fishing at Duncan’s Cove. The couple, from Guerneville, visit the coast often to fish for cod and perch.

They’d noticed the swell was bigger than usual at the site, even reaching the lowest part of the stairs to the beach from Duncan’s Landing at high tide, Shannon said.

Still, Shannon said, it didn’t seem “more crazy than other days,” like when winter storms have passed through.

“The boats are still out there,” said Andy, pointing to three or four fishing vessels visible from the shore. “When they all scatter, you know it’s bad.”

Officials closed the gate to the popular lower parking areas at Goat Rock Beach by early afternoon, which led visitors to congregate at the parking areas above along Goat Rock Road.

The Kortum Trail was dotted with hikers, and as the afternoon wore on, the stream of cars heading west on Highway 1 and up the coastline began to increase.

The closure at Point Reyes was lifted by 1 p.m., but with a warning to all would-be visitors.

“It is strongly advised that people stay off of all beaches in the Seashore in the coming days until the tsunami advisory is lifted,” a follow-up tweet read.

State beaches that rangers didn’t visit for a while began to see more people hitting the sand, as well.

A couple of hours after the ranger summoned people off Salmon Creek Beach, a laminated paper warning remained clipped to a sign.

“The public is advised stay out of the ocean, off beaches and away from coastal waterways,” the warning read in all-caps print. “Strong currents and waves dangerous to this in or very near the water may exist.”

But about two hundred yards away, a dozen or more people were settled or strolling on the beach.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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