A stroll down Mariners’ Mile with dire wolves and saber-toothed tigers


Whether living on islands of sand as warming oceans grow larger, perched eyeball to eyeball with a red-tailed hawk atop a coastal bluff, or standing on a beige beach with pounding surf reverberating through your feet like miniature earthquakes, Newport Beach offers the best in living. That is only if this blessed city can avoid a major disaster. The recent shaking on May 1 reminds us of our vulnerability to nature’s power. But time travel shows us that our beloved harbor area was once radically different from today’s sailboat races, bay cruising, fancy cars and bayfront living.

Why are little boys so fascinated by great extinct creatures?  Newport Beach will never be the location for a trilogy of Jurassic Park movies, but it was certainly different some 12,000 years ago. Then, the gold coast consisted of grasslands – home to mammoths, mastodons, camels, ground sloths, lions, dire wolves and my favorite, the saber-toothed tiger.

Eons before hordes of developers, opportunistic politicians and hyperactive builders seized control of Southern California lands, deeply set geological forces, Mother Nature and God sculpted a blueprint for today’s Newport Beach. Sand, stone, rock and water comprised the majority of the local geology.

It took millions of years to create the incredible half-water/half-mesa wonderland that is Newport Beach. Over the course of time, the southland experienced wide-open lands all the way to coastal mountains along with an underwater environment submerged by melted ice caps.

Since modern man settled in Newport more than a century ago, the peninsula and surrounding lagoon have since been altered, developed and reshaped to something with humans in mind. A drone view west to east from Balboa shows an expansive line of houses and buildings.

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Photos courtesy of Orange County Archives Collection

West Newport pre-groins (before shore-perpendicular coastal engineering structures), 1950s

Prior to this, Newport Beach was the sandy bottom of an ancient ocean that pushed east all the way to Nevada. A soupy brine of silt transported by rivers and siliceous-shelled microfossils rained down onto the ocean floor in preparation for the jeweled city you see today.    Using compaction, these materials hardened over time. Geological folding and uplifting (tectonism) of the earth’s crust created a series of small coastal mountains which are shown by Monterey rock formations traversing the Back Bay.

Global warming and cooling of the earth was at the discretion of Mother Nature. During the Pleistocene Epoch, coastal California went through dramatic changes in sea levels caused by worldwide climate change. Major ice sheets expanded and contracted pushing shorelines back and forth. Science documented 17 climatically controlled worldwide advances and retreats of sea levels within the past 700,000 years. This shows that our earth is in a constant state of flux.

Some 10,000-20,000 years ago, Newport’s shoreline retreated 350 feet below present levels, allowing the Santa Ana River to cut deep channels into the exposed ocean floor for hundreds of yards offshore. Combined with strong tectonic events and massive flooding, this created the “submarine canyon” just off the Newport Pier. Sand, silt and shells were needed to form the peninsula, and islands were moved about and settled waiting for environmental conditions to reverse. About 6,000 years ago, roughly corresponding with the arrival of bands of wandering Native Americans, sea levels rose to close to what they are today.

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Huntington Beach Plunge with oil wells in the background, 1930s

Geological events continued. Most present-day residents live in casual disregard about the possibility of earthquakes, tsunamis, liquefaction and erosion, despite being bantered about during casual conversation. Discussions of these threats to the town get superseded by animated exchanges about children, cars, income, houses, travel, business, sports, fashion and politics. Nature is taken for granted when it doesn’t interfere with residents’ personal wants.

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Newport Coast’s gracious neighborhoods, sit atop ancient marine terraces. The hills were uplifted more than 1,000 feet by a previously unknown fault that is still moving. During the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, geologists established a connection between Newport Beach’s summit and a fault line reaching deep into Los Angeles. Pelican Hill is probably more than a million years old. It is covered with ancient beach deposits and near shore fossil beds, showing that sea levels were well above contemporary levels.

Present day geological events are taking place courteous of the Newport-Inglewood Fault, the San Andres Fault and 30,000 miles of fault lines that cut across California. Local tectonic plates build up seismic stress that eventually leads to a rupture. Faraway places like Mexico, Central America, Japan and Alaska provide hurricanes or tsunamis that can affect Southern California.

Facebook came alive with residents claiming to have felt an earthquake “in” Newport Beach. Needless to say, earthquakes don’t adhere to city limits, but like everything else the residents of Newport Beach claim anything that happens in their town as their own.

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The Newport-Inglewood Fault was responsible for the Long Beach Earthquake. Pictured here is the southside of Compton Boulevard, Long Beach, March 10, 1933.

Newport Beach is most directly affected by a north-south fault that terminates in the ocean just offshore. This Newport-Inglewood Fault sits along the north end of town and is a legitimate concern. In 1933, the fault sent out waves of crustal energy causing damage in Newport Beach and devastation in Long Beach. Geologists placed the epicenter somewhere between the Newport Pier and the mouth of the Santa Ana River.

Some of Southern California’s historic oil fields stretched from West Newport through Huntington Beach and Signal Hill, ending up near Beverly Hills. During the 20th century, decades of hydrocarbon accumulation allowed Southern California to become rich through oil. Tapped oil reserves in West Newport and the Banning Ranch were active, but citizens rallied and offshore rigs were prohibited through the efforts of State Assemblyman Earl Stanley.

Engineers and geologists talk about liquefaction events around the city. Most of Newport Beach’s interior neighborhoods are built on compacted soils or rock, but Newport’s islands and the peninsula are not. If shaken by a sizable earthquake, compacted wet sand can break loose causing flooding. Thousands of homes sit upon sand deposits placed naturally or after a century of dredging. If a quake is strong enough, the supporting sand may act much like quicksand causing houses to sink as the waters rise.

The original Newport Harbor High School tower

The city is prepared for such events. Tsunami signs and warnings are in place to remind people how to get out of town in the event of a tidal wave. Newport Harbor High School’s tower was re-built and earthquake proofed. New homes and high rises are built within current standards regarding earthquake activity. But Newport has not been seriously tested since 1933.

Residents are complacent about “the big one.” As children, we rode our bikes to Blackies’ parking lot to watch a tidal wave arrive from the 1964, 9.2 Alaska earthquake that killed 131 people. Fortunately, we were not punished for our stupidity. The monster wave we went to see measured three inches according to the evening news and went unnoticed by just about everyone.

Remember, California is part of the explosive Ring of Fire. Encircling the entire Pacific Ocean, the Ring of Fire is the hub of seismic activity where 90% of the earth’s earthquakes take place and 1,000 recently active volcanoes can be found. As far back as 1769, explorer Don Gaspar de Portolá named the Santa Ana River “Rio de Jesus de los Tremblores” (river of tremors), due to four violent earthquakes that hit the area during his travels. The quakes were so strong that local Indians were unnerved despite being used to such events.

“If you can’t be in awe of Mother Nature, there is something wrong with you.” –Alex Trebek


Duncan Forgey, long-time resident, photographer and historian of Newport Beach, makes his home on Kaua’i and is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport. His first novel “Flyin’ Kai: A Pelican’s Tale,” which received a recommendation by Kirkus Reviews, is available through his website – www.duncanforgey.com. He would love to hear from you.