Tidepool Safety

Tidepool Safety

You and the Visitor


The most important thing to remember is that…

As a Volunteer-in-Parks (VIP) your safety comes first!

Who is responsible for your safety?




We are each responsible for our own individual safety. Being aware of the following risks and potential hazards can greatly improve safety. Visitors are responsible for their own safety, but there are many ways we can help them be prepared. 

The rocky intertidal area of the park can be inherently dangerous. One of the more common mistakes visitors make is the assumption that this is a city park and is therefore “safe”. We are a National Park Service unit, which celebrates the natural settings and, while we strive to be safe, there are natural hazards that prevent safety from being guaranteed. As the saying goes, “knowledge is power” and with a little awareness and preparation, visiting the tidepools can be a very enjoyable and safe experience. 

Hazards to You and Visitors


Common Hazards

  • Slips and falls
  • Rock falls and bluff collapses
  • Tides and waves
  • Weather
  • Sea Cave


Uncommon Hazards

  • Injured Wildlife
  • Military ordnance
  • Boat accidents
  • Injuries
  • Visitors of concern

Slips and Falls

These are the most common types of injuries in the tidepools. Wet rocks, uneven levels, loose sand, slippery algae and changing tides contribute to these conditions. Throw in a little drizzle or thick marine layer and the slick conditions can increase.

Algae in Tidepools
The green and brown algae and wet surf grass can be beautiful, but they’re slick as ice.
The entry area to the tidepools is made of uneven sandstone layers. They are often coated with loose sand and require slow and deliberate foot placement. Also, notice the rocks in the lower intertidal.

Preventing Slips and Falls – You

  • Wear appropriate footwear. This includes any shoe that has very good traction and completely covers the toes: an old pair of tennis shoes (with good traction), an old pair of boots if you need ankle support, or water shoes or boots (with good traction). Do not wear flip flops. The majority of foot and ankle injuries treated in the rocky intertidal are generally the result of loose fitting footwear like flip flops.  Flip Flops
  • Learn the tidepool walk. Walking through the tidepools can be tricky. Be very deliberate about where you are placing your feet. Look up to see where you are going and look down when you are moving your feet. Move slowly and deliberately with very short and careful steps. Do not walk or hop from rock to rock to avoid getting wet. Instead, get your feet wet. Place them at the lowest possible point, preferably any sandy bottoms or areas where you can get a good grip, like edges of sandstone layers. Do not step on the sides of rocks. You will put your foot at an angle and might cause it to twist. Use a walking stick for added balance.

Walking In the Tidepools

Preventing Slips and Falls – Visitors

  • Give a friendly reminder to visitors who are wearing inappropriate footwear. Let them know of slick and rocky conditions. It is up to them to heed the warning.
  • Educate visitors who might be doing the ever so fun rock hop. Let them know this is a dangerous way to navigate the tidepools and show them how to do it properly (see “Walking in the Tidepools” photo above).
  • If you see children wearing open toed sandals, let their parents know of the risks for cuts and scrapes on the sharp rocks.
  • Do not “run” after visitors who might be at risk. Remember – your safety comes first and you won’t be able to help them if you fall and are injured. Be calm and in control. When you begin to rush, you increase the risk to yourself. It is possible to move with purpose without rushing.


Rock Falls & Bluff Collapses

  • The erosion process from wind, rain and large surf is a very natural one. Visitors occasionally sit under cliff ledges, often planning to be there for hours on their beach blanket. Others walk to the very edges up above when taking photographs. Signs are posted, but they can be missed or ignored.
Cliff Hazards
What’s on top? Signs are posted to warn of cliff hazards. There is potential to fall when venturing out to the edges.
Loose Rocks
What’s below? Loose sand and rocks can crumble from the walls and land in large piles below, posing a risk to anyone standing beneath ledges.
Bluff Collapse
This large section of bluff collapsed during a night of high surf in May 2011. It was about the size of a small car and likely weighed as much. The park was not open when this large chunk gave way. Collapses like this can happen at any time, but may be more likely after heavy rain or large surf.

Rock Falls & Cliff Collapses – YOU

It is not possible to prevent a rock fall or a cliff collapse, but you will be less likely to encounter a problem by observing some common sense awareness of your surroundings.

Cracks in the rocks

  • Stay a few feet back from cliff edges. Learn the geography/geology and know what is under you. Are you on a cliff edge that is undercut by wave action?
  • Don’t stand under cliff edges. Sandstone can collapse at any time.
  • As you are working your shift, keep an eye out for any unusual changes in the cliffs. Example: large and widespread cracking. Report any observations to a Ranger.
A side view of the same edge. Notice the crack extends from the top, down the side of the entire first layer.

Rock Falls & Cliff Collapses – Visitors

  • It’s common for visitors to store belongings up against the cliff faces. Often, they will sit there in the shade of the cliffs. Advise them of the risk of cliff collapse and ask them to move to a safer area.
  • If visitors are looking at the cliffs and admiring the geology, allow them to do so if they are not under an overhang. Advise them of the nature of weak sandstone, so they do not linger.
  • If you observe someone scaling or climbing the one story cliff faces, advise them of the weak sandstone. It is up to them to heed the warning. Have your radio ready in the event there is a fall injury.
Bluff Collapse1
A law enforcement Ranger finishes off a section of bluff that was hanging precariously after a major collapse in May 2011 (bluff collapse photo above).

Bluff Collapse

Changing Tides

There is only one entry/exit to the tidepool area on the north side of the beach. Visitors who are not aware of tide level changes can get trapped in the southern area of the tidepools. Many will try to climb the cliffs to avoid getting wet. It takes approximately two hours after the peak of the low tide for the beach to fill with water. It pays…. to pay attention!

Tidepool Exit
The Cabrillo National Monument tidepools at low tide. Visitors are welcome to explore the South end, but must know when to return.
High Tide
The Cabrillo National Monument tidepools at high tide. *Note: The tide change is a gradual process.

Changing Tides – You

Tidal changes are a natural condition. Awareness is a key aspect to staying safe, as tidal fluctuations are very predictable and can help you avoid getting wetter than you might want to.

  • Know your tides! Check the tide calendar to know the peak low tide time. It takes approximately two hours after the peak low tide for the beach to cover with water.
  • Even the best predictions of tide level can be altered by other environmental conditions, like high surf, so keep an eye on the water line if you venture to the south.
  • When you are talking to visitors, position yourself so that you can always see the water and where it is going.

Changing Tides – Visitors

  • Visitors are welcome to explore the southern area of the tidepools up to the border of Zone 2 and 3. Many visitors will cross the beach when it is starting to cover with water. That is okay. Volunteers should advise visitors whenever possible that the tide is coming up and that they may get very wet on return. Use your best judgment–if visitors are still in the southern end and the tide is starting to get very high, you can ask them to return to the north side of the beach.


Sunburn & Inclement Weather

  • Despite cooler temperatures in the winter/spring seasons, the sun is still shining and can lead to sunburn, even through the clouds. Also, the reflection off the water can intensify the sun’s effects. It is not impossible to suffer from heat exhaustion in the winter.
  • The tidepools can also have their own microclimates. When it’s warmer on the top of the peninsula, it can still be chilly near the water and vice versa. Slick conditions will also increase during the rain. Getting wet and standing in cold and windy conditions can be miserable and, while it would be rare, could potentially lead to hypothermia.
Tidepools at Noon
The tidepools at noon. Notice the reflection from the sun.
Winter Storm
A winter storm brings heavy rain.
Storm Runoff
Storm runoff during a heavy winter rain. This storm also brought with it 30mph winds & cold temps.

Sunburn & Inclement Weather – You

  • Wear your sunscreen at all times. Sunscreen with zinc is available in the staff lunch room. Sunscreen is also available in the TPERP backpacks.
  • Wear your hat. The hat is also part of your uniform and is a requirement. The park will provide a VIP cap or floppy hat. You can also use your own hat if it meets NPS standards, but we would like to place a VIP patch on it.
  • Wear sunglasses.
  • Drink plenty of water and eat a few salty snacks on hot days.
  • If it’s raining, decide if you want to show up. Cancel if you do not want to be in the rain. This is perfectly okay. There are few visitors during storms. However, if the rain is light and there are sun breaks, visitation can still be consistent. Some volunteers bring a book and sit in the car or the new trailer during scattered showers and then venture out during sun breaks when the visitors arrive.
  • Dress in layers and wear the NPS VIP jacket kept in the lockers. Bring your own waterproof wear.
  • Bring extra socks and dry clothes for your drive home. This is a good idea on sunny days too!

Sunburn & Inclement Weather – Visitors

  • Occasionally you may notice visitors who are sitting in the sun who are obviously turning pink. You may let them know your observations and recommend they use sunscreen or take other measures to protect against the sun’s rays. Some visitors who may be visiting from other states may not be accustomed to taking these precautions. You may also make these observations, or provide educational awareness to parents who might have young children at risk for exposure.
  • You may offer visitors sunscreen from the TPERP backpack
  • During periods of rain, or even light drizzle, it’s good for volunteers to remind visitors of the slippery conditions. This may be a frequent warning issued by the volunteer stationed at the tidepool entry area.

“Secret” Sea Cave

In the northern area of Zone 1, the cave was created by sudden and catastrophic sandstone erosion and rock falls.

Sea Cave – You and the Visitor

TPERP Volunteers must advise that the Cabrillo Sea Cave is located within a closed area of the park. Due to extremely dangerous conditions and in compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Federal Law prohibits entry at any time.

Two people stand at a dangerous edge of a sinkhole along sandstone cliffs at the ocean's edge.

Injured Wildlife

Wild animals must not be handled or touched. They can be even more aggressive when they are in pain. They can also carry disease. Examples include injured seals, sea lions, or shorebirds.

Injured Wildlife
An injured Common Murre clings to the cliffs on the south side of the beach area in the Cabrillo National Monument tidepools.
Elephant Seal
An elephant seal hanging out on the beach near the tidepools. A park visitor reported an injured seal, but this seal did not appear to be hurt. It was just taking a snooze. It’s a good idea, and it’s the law, to stay at least 50 feet away from seals and sea lions.

Injured Wildlife -You

  • If you receive a report, or encounter an injured animal, do not go near it. Radio for a Ranger and keep visitors away from the animal. Do not touch the animal.
  • There are procedures in other chapters of this e-binder that Rangers will follow to appropriately assist the animal, or let nature take its course, depending on the animal and the circumstances.


Injured Wildlife -Visitor

  • If the animal is an injured seal, or sea lion, it is the law to stay at least 50 feet away. Advise visitors of the law and ask them to remain at a distance.
  • Educate the visitors about the animal if you know what it is and let them know Rangers will be assisting and taking appropriate measures in accordance with National Park Service Policy.
  • For more details – read the strandings flowchart and the Dead, or Injured birds document contained in the Safety Chapter of the e-binder. Additional information is in the Marine Mammals Chapter.

Unexploded or Exploded Ordnance

On rare occasions, military ordnance can wash into the tidepools. Military training is conducted regularly off our coast. Flares or other devices can potentially explode or cause burns. Call a Ranger.

This U.S. Navy flare was found in the tidepool area on March 29, 2011. It is rare to find ordnance, but it can happen. This was not the first reported incident and likely won’t be the last.


Unexploded Ordnance-You and the Visitor

  • Immediately move away from the suspected device.
  • Immediately ask everyone to move away from the device.
  • Call a Ranger.
  • Keep people from entering the area, but do not go back to the area if people do not heed your warning. Your safety first.

Boating Accidents

Boating accidents are rare but do happen.

Boating Accidents – You

  • Ask everyone to move away from the area.
  • Call a Ranger. Call immediately if there are occupants of the boat in distress.  Do not put yourself in harm’s way.

A sailboat is towed away from the rocky shore after getting stranded.

A park ranger stands with several lifeguards at a rocky shoreline. The lifeguards are attempting to rescue an injured visitor.


The tidepools are a natural habitat with uneven ground, wet and slippery rocks, and cliffs.  Slips and falls are the most common injury in the tidepools, most resulting in no more than a wet bottom.  Some result in sprained ankles or a scraped knee.  Periodically health emergencies happen requiring professional attention.

Injuries – You

  • Minor Cuts & Scrapes – This is the most common and frequent injury in the rocky intertidal area. You will have a backpack with a first aid kit. Your first course of action is to offer the injured person, or parent of  an injured child, antiseptic wipes and band aids. Do not – perform first aid treatment, unless you are certified to do so and are comfortable. Advise visitors to possibly seek more medical treatment.
  • Minor Cuts & Scrapes with Need for Assistance – If you are trained in First Aid, you may ask the person if you can assist them, but only if you are comfortable with it. Always wear protective barrier gloves (this would be known with training!). Always ask the person if they have fallen, if they have hit their head, or if they are injured anywhere else. If you suspect there are other injuries, or the person seems confused, or there is heavier bleeding, call law enforcement.
  • Emergency Medical Responses – The most important assist is to relay the need for medical or rescue assistance immediately to law enforcement, or dispatch. Only provide help that is in your trained ability and comfort level. Keep the injured person calm.
  • Crowd Control – It is sometimes necessary to shut down the tidepool trail entry to pedestrians when there’s a need for emergency response. Follow instructions from Rangers to assist with any crowd control.Lifeguards use a crane to raise an injured person along sandstone cliffs.

Two firetrucks are parked along a road.

Visitors of Concern

  • The majority of visitors are families and friends looking to have a great time and learn about the tidepools. Occasionally, you may see visitors engaging in illegal activity. Contact a Ranger for any of the following:
  • Smoking marijuana/illegal drug use
  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
  • Fighting/Threats to you or others
  • Intentional harming of wildlife
  • Unintentional harming of wildlife or taking of shells – after educational advisement from volunteers

These situations are rare, but it’s a good idea to be aware of your surroundings and to report anything that just doesn’t look right to law enforcement.

When to call Law Enforcement Rangers and Emergency Medical Response

If you are not sure what to do in any situation, the most important thing to remember is to use your radio to call a Ranger. Rangers are happy to respond and can do so at any time.

The following are just some of the scenarios that are uncommon, but can possibly happen at some point in the rocky intertidal area. Every situation is different, but preparing by thinking through potential scenarios can increase safety and response efficiency.

  1. Head Injuries – Immediately call for medical assistance by asking for an ambulance or Federal Fire. You need professional help. Law Enforcement will contact you for your location information.
  2. Cardiac Arrest – Immediately ask for medical assistance. If trained, start performing CPR. Law enforcement will contact you for your location information.
  3. Broken Bones, Ankle Sprain, Or Other Fall Injury – Call law enforcement and report the location and type of injury to the best of your ability. Ask the person if they hit their head during the fall. Use your best judgment. If they have a compound fracture, call for medical assistance.
  4. Bluff Collapse – Look for witnesses. Check quickly to see if anyone is missing anyone in their party. Call law enforcement Rangers and report what you know about injuries or possible persons trapped. If you don’t know – say so.
  5. Illegal Activity Or Threats – Move away from the immediate area of activity and make a report to law enforcement. If this is for “no take” enforcement and you have already warned the visitor, walk away from the area and call a Ranger.
  6. Climbing Up The Pensinula – You see people scaling the steep peninsula, or a bluff more than two stories above the tidepools. This situation might lead to a cliff rescue that requires technical emergency personnel. Call law enforcement.
  7. Trapped By The Tide – A person is trapped by the rising tide. Call law enforcement. Try to time the large and small wave sets to provide information to rescue personnel.
  8. Harming And Harassing Of Wildlife – You see someone harming wildlife, beyond what education alone would correct. Call law enforcement and advise.
  9. Shell & Rock Collection – You have already educated a visitor about the no take policy and they continue to collect and ignore you. Walk away and call a Ranger.
  10. Shell & Rock Collection – You see someone collecting shells and rocks and you do not feel comfortable approaching them. Call law enforcement or a Ranger.

Trust Your Gut – Something just doesn’t look right and you think it should be checked out. Your instincts can be spot-on with situations like this. Do not hesitate to call law enforcement for any reason.

Staying Safe in the Tidepools

Now that you have a good idea of the safety hazards in the tidepools, you will see that preparation and awareness can prevent or reduce the likelihood of many of these risks. Thank you for taking care of your own safety and for providing safety education to visitors.

Last revised 18-Feb-21