Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave

The cover for The Esmeralda Goodbye is taken from an old postcard I found, which features an illustration of a female swimmer standing on the rocks at the entrance to a cave, preparing to dive into the ocean waves below. As you’ll see from the images below, it’s a real location—Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave near the La Jolla Cove. It’s been a popular tourist attraction for over a hundred years.

Cover of The Esmeralda Goodbye.
Photo by Sharonannajacob via Wikimedia Commons , CC BY-SA 2.0

If you’re a particularly strong and fearless swimmer, you may be able to access the cave from the ocean. Kayakers also like to approach from ocean side. But most people get to the cave by taking a self-guided “tour” that starts at The Cave Store, located on the cliffs above. You can view a short sample of the tour via the video below.

In 1902, a German professor and mining engineer named Gustav Shulz hatched a plan to construct a tunnel to the cave from the land he owned on the cliffs above. It took him nearly 2 years to dig the tunnel. Visitors were originally required to use rope ladders to get down. The current stairway and observation deck were built later.

Photo by Cultivar413 via Flickr

A restaurant called the Crescent Cafe stood above the entrance to the cave, but it was burned down by an arsonist in 1915 and was replaced by The Cave Store. It is said that bootleggers used the cave and passageway to smuggle in whiskey during Prohibition and that human traffickers may have used it as stowaway spot for Chinese immigrants.

Photo by Cultivar413 via Flickr

In The Esmeralda Goodbye, the chief protagonist’s younger brother gets a summer job working at The Cave Store. I won’t give away any spoilers, but he discovers something important in the cave one morning while doing his rounds.

My friend and fellow San Diego author Matt Coyle used the cave for a book cover and scenes from his 2018 novel, Wrong Light. A Hollywood movie, Neptune’s Daughter with Esther Williams and Red Skelton, used the cave as one of its filming locations (I don’t know if Esther actually swam there).

How did the cave get it’s name? Well, the leading theory is that L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz and a San Diego visitor in the early 1900s, named the cave after a cartoon character, Sunny Jim, who appeared on boxes of a British breakfast cereal. You can see how the outline of the cave resembles a man’s profile.

Sunny Jim's Sea Cave photographed from inside the cave
Photo by Jarek Tuszyński, CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s an old-fashioned kind tourist attraction and still worth a visit.

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