The Story Behind California’s Biggest Ocean Swells in 15 Years

biggest ocean swells

The start of a new year is supposed to be a time of reflection. But so far, 2023 has brought more than that. For California, torrential rain was also part of the package! Yes, The Golden State has seen more than its share of harsh weather already this year. And the roads aren’t the only thing affected. Our oceans are also feeling the impact with some of the biggest ocean swells ever. 

San Diego’s giant ocean swells 

On Friday, January 6, 2023, San Diego experienced its largest ocean swell in fifteen years. There were many reports of 10- to 12-foot waves, but some waves periodically soared as high as 20 feet. 

La Jolla Cove was home to the biggest surf with peak swells hitting 20 feet before dawn. Mission Beach also experienced 18-foot swells. But don’t worry, everything started to calm down heading into the weekend.

Was there damage? 

Thankfully, there wasn’t much damage to speak of from San Diego’s latest ocean swells. The only repair reported so far is a safety railing at the La Jolla Children’s Poolwhich is pretty reasonable given the giant waves.

Two surfers did require assistance, though. One was rescued off Windansea Beach, and another needed help near La Jolla Children’s Poolprobably unrelated to the safety railing.Also, the Ocean Beach pier was closed for a day to keep people safe from the big swells meteorologists anticipated. 

What creates a swell? 

The short answer? Ocean swells are created by the wind. Every swell starts out as a ripple on the surface of the ocean. As these ripples travel, they start to grow and finally break into waves. And if things get really feisty, a big swell can happen. 

These particular swells in San Diego were created by a “bomb cyclone.” That spooky storm name won’t guarantee you a trip from Kansas to Oz, but it does refer to a low-pressure system that turns into a huge storm very quickly. The suddenness of scale is why meteorologists call this phenomenon “bomb.” 

Now, the recent bomb cyclone did wreak a little more havoc than the actual swells did. Waves from the explosive storm put a decent dent in the Capitola Pier near Santa Cruz. 

Can I see more of the biggest ocean swells? 

Well, of course you can! With the danger in the past, there’s definitely no harm in admiring the huge natural impact of these storms. And if you enjoy the extra adrenaline of imagining what it’s like to be a surfer in these waves, even better. Check out these videos featuring some of the craziest moments during the recent ocean swells.  

Black’s Beach

La Jolla Cove


Seal Beach

How can I find out about future swells? 

Who’s most interested in knowing when swells are coming? Surfers. Dedicated surfers keep a constant eye on the oceanfront so they don’t miss the best moment to grab their board and rush out into the sea. 

Because of this, the surfing community has access to technology that lets them keep an eye on swells at various beaches. Check out Swellmagnet for more information on California swells.

If these swells have you worried, we have good news. First, they were the biggest in 15 yearsmeaning the recent storm was out of the ordinary and you shouldn’t expect another one next week. And second, even these big swells were pretty manageable for California’s coastal communities and the surfers who rode them. 

With that feeling of safety, we hope you enjoy the YouTube videos of this wild week in SoCal!

image credit: shutterstock/Dan Bucko

Pete Blasi