Killer Sea Cave Shot or: Almost Being Killed in a Sea Cave

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One of the many reasons why the California Republic is the greatest nation in the free world is its wonderfully diverse geography. I witnessed this firsthand a couple of weeks ago, shooting dawn and sunrise in the freezing temperatures of Yosemite National Park before finishing the day shooting sunset in 90-degree weather at El Matador State Beach in Malibu.

El Matador has been on my radar for a while now, but it’s a 2-hour drive from me without traffic, which means it would be a ??? hour drive after sunset heading down through Los Angeles’ traffic. Being a Midwesterner at heart, one thing I don’t adore about California is its traffic, so I’ve been putting it off. A few weeks ago, Bill went without me and captured this gem from inside one of the sea caves. Suffice to say, I was kicking myself for not going and more than a little jealous. When he suggested that Mark, me, and him stop there on our way back home from Yosemite, I was all in.

Of course, I wanted to go in the sea caves because…caves are awesome?…and try for my own shot. After previously having some *ahem* issues with tide, I’ve recently downloaded the Surfline app, which is great for info about the tide (and also which wetsuit to wear!). I consulted the app as we drove down to Malibu, and it indicated tide was moderate, and would be going out shortly after sunset. Cool.

We arrived at El Matador, and knew we might have an issue when police were directing traffic and parking spilled out from the lot about a mile down Pacific Coast Highway. Turns out the combo of Valentine’s Day plus Presidents’ Weekend plus unseasonably warm weather was the perfect storm of conditions to draw people to the beach.

Navigating past the heaviest crowds, we got to a point on the beach where you could go no further due to the water level without making a quick dash through a little sea arch. You had to time it right to avoid waves so you didn’t get completely soaked, but even the best timing meant getting a little wet. Since we had just come from Yosemite, we were all wearing jeans hiking shoes (hey, I’ve seen goths at the beach, so we weren’t that out of place). Bill not wanting to drive home wet and Mark having a flight out of LAX in a few hours both decided to pass. I was on my own.

I took off my shoes, rolled up my pant legs, and decided to attack this one Huck Finn style. Unfortunately, I still got fairly wet. I then made my way over to the sea caves, only to find that tide was way too high to enter unless I wanted to chance certain damage to my equipment and maybe injury. On the plus side, there was no one else around, so I tossed my shoes down and started shooting outside the caves.

I shot for a while and as the sunset colors started to peak, I ran back through the sea arch to the other side of the beach to shoot the sea stacks. The above photo was one of the results, and I ended getting a few keepers with which I was fairly pleased. After a bit, I was just about ready to call it a night.


I realized I had left my shoes on the far beach, right next to the sea caves. I trudged back, through the sea arch and towards the caves. As I was grabbing my shoes, I noticed that the water level in the caves had gone down a bit, and the waves weren’t as strong. (Which jived with Surfline’s info.)

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There was still color on the horizon from sunset and blue hour (this was a “slow burn” sunset) so I decided to check out the sea caves. I got through the first one and into the second two, and realized the water level was still pretty high. High enough that I needed to climb up onto rocks to do my shooting.

On top of that, the sea caves were pretty dark. I know, surprise surprise, a cave is dark. I was shooting 8 to 30 second exposures, and still not getting satisfying results. In these situations, I normally like to keep my shutter speed under 2 seconds so the foreground has some interesting water motion. That simply wasn’t possible here, no matter what setting combos I tried.

All the while, I was keeping my eye on the waves, as they were still crashing into the rocks at my feet. I still didn’t have anything with which I was happy, but right as I started my exposure after the shot above, a wave crashed into me, coming up to my belly button, knocking me back a few steps as I cut up my feet on the rocks below. I didn’t fall, but it was a painful reminder to respect the ocean, and my sign to call it a night.

With my pants thoroughly soaked at this point, I met up with Bill and Mark, and we made the long walk back to the car. Outside of it, I changed my pants and shirt, giving a free show to the bumper-to-bumper line of traffic on the PCH. (C’mon, I’ve seen the bikinis that girls these days wear…a dude in his boxers doesn’t even come close to being that risqué.)

I’m far from happy with my cave shot, and I’m already scouting my next chance to make the trip up to Malibu to get a mulligan on this one. El Matador is the most photogenic beach I’ve ever seen, and I’m itching to get back. Hopefully next time during the lowest of low tide.

The photos in this post were taken by me with my Sony a7R II mirrorless camera, plus my Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 (top photo) and Opteka 6.5mm Fisheye (bottom photo) lenses. I also used my MeFoto travel tripod.

If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. For photo licensing inquires, please contact me.

Your Thoughts…

Have you been to El Matador State Beach in Malibu? Seen the sea caves? What do you think of Malibu? Any “learning experiences” about respecting the ocean of your own? Have any questions or other thoughts? Please share below in the comments!

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9 replies
  1. Paula Wilcox
    Paula Wilcox says:

    We attempted to go to the caves but the water was too high. We made it through the first arch but waves crashed us into the rocks. Pretty banged up but glad we made it out safely. Would not advise to go in unless tide is super low.

  2. Kendall
    Kendall says:

    When I went in there, the tide was so low that you could actually walk around and sit on the sand. It was pretty cool.

  3. Samantha Decker
    Samantha Decker says:

    I went to El Matador Beach a few years ago but didn’t go down to the caves. I was just in Southern California and was hoping to go back, but it was high tide when I was in Malibu, so it didn’t work out. Maybe next time. Great drama in your photo.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I wish the beach weren’t so far from me. That beach has such an interesting stretch of coastline that you could shoot it everyday for a year and come away with unique shots each time. Hope you get a chance to go back!

  4. William McIntosh
    William McIntosh says:

    I can’t get over how HIGH that water level is in the cave! Glad you didn’t drown and glad you came away with some awesome shots! Next year, let’s NOT hit that beach on Valentines Day, especially if it falls on a three day weekend with 90 degree temps. The entire city of Malibu must have been on that beach, lol.

    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      I can only imagine how high the water was at high tide–this is as it was getting lower. Agreed about not hitting El Matador at such a busy time, but we definitely need to get back to Malibu!

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