The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea
By David Helvarg
St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books, $26.99
Reviewed by JIM MOTAVALLI
“The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea” is SEJ member David Helvarg’s sixth book about the oceans and the perils they face.
Helvarg is a former private investigator, war correspondent and documentarian who founded the grassroots Blue Frontier Campaign in 2003 to draw more attention to oceans. At the time, he was living in Washington. He missed California, where he moved after college. He now lives near San Francisco.
Don’t read David Helvarg for New York Times-style narrative. He’s a participant, not just an observer. All his books contain first-person sections, and are mostly better because of it.
In “The Golden Shore,” he’s constantly boarding boats with scientists, Navy men, longshoremen, dock patrols and border police. He doesn’t want to simply describe what these people do; he wants you on board with him getting sprayed by saltwater.
This is an uplifting book, even though it chronicles centuries of appalling treatment of the Pacific Ocean. The oceans are faced with resource exploitation, pollution, sea-level rise and acidification, but they’re not dead. “Even today,” Helvarg writes, “living on the bay, the second largest estuary on the West Coast, I’m amazed how, after centuries and millennia of human impact, habitation and dumb decisions there remains a wealth of wildlife on and off the water.”
“The Golden Shore” works because it’s fast-paced and nicely structured. The author doesn’t get lost in minutiae. The main character — the California coast — comes into clear focus.
This book has a big historical story to tell, and the vivid backstory alone is worth reading it. Helvarg’s book is a good guide to the sometimes benighted, sometimes enlightened, policies that have both threatened and saved the state’s coast. The story of the California Coastal Commission, established in 1972 as an outgrowth of the fight against Sea Ranch, a major housing development north of San Francisco, is as inspiring as the exploitation of whales and fur seals is sordid.
The commission, which took on iconic record executive-film producer David Geffen and actor-director Clint Eastwood in beach privacy disputes, requires every waterfront community to have a coastal plan. Headed by the late Peter Douglas, it became a powerful force for shore protection. It was Douglas who often said, “The coast is never saved. The coast is always being saved.” That’s also a good epigram for this book.
Near the end, Helvarg talks about a shoreline battle that got personal — a fight against a mega-casino backed by Chevron that would have obliterated 422 acres of green space and eel grass meadows facing San Francisco Bay. Instead of hiding behind his notebook, Helvarg decided it was time to fight city hall and joined with a citizens group in a successful battle to defeat the developers.
The California coast is still bleeding from a thousand cuts, and threatened by many more. But it’s also alive with fin and fauna, thanks to the Blue Frontier activists chronicled in these pages.
SEJ member Jim Motavalli’s most recent book is “High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug in the Auto Industry.”
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2013. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.