What to Know About the California Coastal Currents – And How it Can Affect Your Paddling

In Instructional by Daniel

Ocean Awareness 

The ocean is alive. To most, that would seem obvious. It is teeming with energy and a vast array of wildlife. However, to the few who know, the oceans, and more specifically, the Pacific Ocean is a body of water with its own characteristics.

It has a consistent temperature, occasional upwellings, mood changes, and is in a constant state of flow.

All of which combine to affect your daily paddling and surfing activities.

When it comes to the great mystery that is the ocean, it is always best to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible.

And a great place to start is by understanding the consistent currents that are characteristic of the western coast of California.

California Current

The California Current is a cold water Pacific Ocean current. It begins off the southern coast of British Columbia and ends on the southern Baja California Sur flowing north to south.

Due to the North American coastline, it is considered an Eastern boundary current. In addition, it is considered one of five major coastal currents associated with strong upwelling zones and is part of the North Pacific Gyre, a large swirling current that occupies the northern basin of the Pacific.

What its Movement Means

Since it is a north-to-south running current, the water that ends up along the California coast results in much cooler ocean temperatures compared to sections on the east coast of the US. This also results in cooler summer temperatures on the west coast as compared to the east.

Example: Half Moon Bay at 37°N has no month with an average high above 67 °F (19 °C) and San Francisco often stays below 70 °F (21 °C) in summer, while Virginia Beach, VA, close to the same latitude, has high temperatures above 80 °F (27 °C) in summer. (source)

Combine its movements with consistent northwesterly wind and there is often an extensive upwelling of colder sub-surface waters that work to also cool the water temperatures year-round. This mechanism is also what causes California’s coastal fogs and will drop the water temperatures in comparison to east coast summer temperatures.

Example: The average July SST (sea surface temperature) at New York City at 40.7°N is 73 °F (23 °C), while at the same latitude in Eureka, CA is 57 °F (14 °C). As such, ocean surf temperatures are rarely above 66 °F (19 °C) during the summer along the California coast south to San Diego, while they are often above 80 °F (27 °C) on the east coast from North Carolina southward. (source)

There is some good news despite the cooler water temps. Due to the upwelling caused by the current and the winds, the waters bring nutrient-rich sediments to the surface that support large populations of whales, seabirds, and fish species.

So, for all you nature lovers out there - the California coast is the place to go if you want to spot a whale in the wild!

However, be careful to not arrive during an El Niño event as this can have a negative effect on the food chain - especially on the phytoplankton. Which of course, leads to a decline in the whale and seabird population.

A Visual Representation of the Current

Conclusion

When we know as much as possible about the environments we paddle in, we are more likely to stay safe, and have fun. The Pacific Ocean is a magical place, full of fantastic opportunities to connect with nature and the wildlife within. With knowledge of the currents, you can be better prepared for the water temperatures, the changing conditions, and when the magical wildlife will be available to greet from the platform of your paddle board.