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San Diego cracks down on cliff-jumping at oceanfront park

San Diego cracks down on cliff-jumping at oceanfront park
Jake O'Connell, 19, does a front flip at Sunset Cliffs. (Misael Virgen / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The signs are all there, warning that the sandy, ragged edge of Sunset Cliffs in San Diego County is unstable, and that jumping from the bluff into the ocean is illegal.

But social media and scorching weather last weekend combined to entice as many as 100 people to a popular jumping spot called the Arch.

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It's a problem that has been growing across Southern California. Videos of people jumping off cliffs at Malibu Creek State Park have become popular on the Internet. In Rancho Palos Verdes last year, attention was focused on the issue when a teenager died jumping off Inspiration Point. City officials said social media has heighten interest in jumping there.

In San Diego, the city has responded by budgeting for a park ranger to patrol the 68-acre Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, including 18 acres of narrow coastline.

The Arch is a big draw on any given day, especially in the summer when the ocean temperature hovers around 70 degrees while eastern San Diego County tops 100. Daredevils of all ages, but mostly teenagers, get a running start, then hurl themselves off the 20-foot cliff and splash into the sea that churns over hidden rock outcroppings.

Locals have been doing it for decades. Most come out without a scratch.

Lifeguards, police and Ocean Beach community leaders are getting more concerned, though, that Internet photos and videos of jumping at the Arch are bringing in too many people from around the county, other states and even other countries who are unaware of the dangers or the city ban on jumping.

"If you don't know what you're doing, it's really dangerous," said Craig Klein, an Ocean Beach Community Planning Board member. "In winter that area turns into a maelstrom, a churning whirlpool. Or if you jump at low tides, you're almost guaranteed to hit the bottom. People from outside the area don't know a 1-foot tide from a 5-foot one."

Added San Diego lifeguard Sgt. Jon Vipon, "It's against the law for a reason: People get hurt."

On Aug. 7, a man in his 30s who made the jump was knocked unconscious and rescued by bystanders, then hauled up the cliff by lifeguards and hospitalized. Years ago, Vipon said, he rescued a man who was partially paralyzed by his diving injury at the Arch.

The sandstone formation arcs over the water and forms part of a cove at Pappy's Point, off Sunset Cliffs Boulevard near Osprey Street. The boulevard is lined with guardrails, chain barricades and signs warning people to keep away from the edge and not to jump off.

San Diego's municipal code prohibits jumping into the Pacific Ocean and Mission Bay from a height greater than five feet off a natural or man-made platform connected to land. Boats don't count. The infraction carries a $470 fine. Parents are held responsible for their children's violations.

Klein suggested the city charge cost-recovery fees for cliff-jumping rescues.

"Historically, it used to be more local kids doing it," lifeguard Lt. Rich Stropky said. "Then social media caught on, and people came from miles around to jump. It's a big issue. Over the last four years it's become more and more popular.

"Right now it's crazy. The police get reports of 100 people jumping off the cliffs."

He said the crowds have even created a safety issue for lifeguards, who are heckled if they write citations. Police Lt. William Carter said that in the large crowd a week ago, some young people "mouthed off" to officers writing tickets to people who had dared to jump from the cliff right in front of them.

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"It wasn't a bad group of kids, but they were still breaking the law," Carter said. "We're working with lifeguards, and we will meet with some community groups to talk about cliff rescues."

Vipon said lifeguards made only a handful of serious rescues at the Arch in the last two years, but they frequently get diverted from their station a mile away to check on crowds or reported injuries. Often, he said, by the time they get there the jumpers have left.

"They know it's against the law and they're afraid of getting into trouble, so friends bundle up the injured person and take them home," Vipon said. "We've responded for no reason."

Rob Bregman, 45, who grew up in Point Loma and worked as a lifeguard for 12 years, said the crowds generate peer pressure to jump. He said officials should be writing more tickets to try to curb the activity.

Vipon said he doesn't enjoy writing tickets, so he tries a lighter, educational approach.

"I'll gather the whole crowd together and give them a mass warning," he said. "I'll ask where they're from. A substantial number are from out of town. They've heard about the Arch on social media. A lot of people go in not knowing it's illegal. They don't read the signs because there are a lot of signs out there."

Pauline Repard writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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