As Shelter Cove Celebrates 50th Anniversary, Residents Warn Visitors About Black Sands


The beauty of Black Sands beach deceives tourists and locals alike into trusting treacherous waves. [Photo by Maryellen McKee.]

As celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Shelter Cove Resort Improvement District (RID) bring media attention to the remote and striking Lost Coast (journalists from the Irish Times, the London Times, and the SF Examiner plan to come to the area in the next month,) local residents want to warn visitors about the dangers present at two of the beaches in the area—Black Sands and its tiny onyx neighbor, Little Black Sands. After a Montana man’s death this month, there is some tension between groups that desire to attract tourists to the unique shores and those that want to warn them of the perils of those two locations.

No one knows how many have died in the waters just north of Shelter Cove but below are three of the most well-known incidents.

  • In March of 2000, a rogue wave swept a 47-year-old parent/chaperon from Canada off Black Sands Beach and she, as well as two 17-year-old students who attempted to save her, drowned.
  • In January of 2013, a man and woman were slapped by a unusually large wave at Little Black Sands. The man scrambled onto rocks. The woman was swept to sea and drowned.
  • In March of this year, yet another rogue wave snatched a 13-year-old Montana boy off a rock at Black Sands Beach and his father, though managing to save his son, drowned in the rescue.

Danger sign

Danger sign at Black Sands Beach. [Photo by local resident.]

Many more individuals are believed to have been sucked into the waters there–some to be rescued, others to die. According to Deputy Coroner Trevor Enright, his office doesn’t yet have software available to easily gather the statistics on deaths occurring in one area. So the numbers and the names of the lost are not available but local residents know that Black Sands and its beautiful sister beach to the south, Little Black Sands are dangerous.

Autumn Hargrave and her husband Jac, owners of the Fish Tank, a small cafe overlooking the area, are constantly warning people, particularly tourists, to never turn their back on the treacherous waves and stay out of the rip current.


Autumn Hargrave, part owner of The Fish Tank which overlooks Black Sands beach. [Photo from Hargrave’s Facebook page..]

Autumn Hargrave points out, “As a business owner in Shelter Cove, I would rather lose a sale to someone who is a little pissed I laid on the Black Sands water warning too thick than lose one of my volunteer firefighters out there in the water.”

Hargrave believes that some business organizations in the area “play down the dangers of Black Sands beach.” She thinks that’s dangerous. She adds wryly, “A dead tourist does not come back for a second time. It is in all our best interests to keep our visitors alive.”

Maryellen McKee who has family living within sight of the beaches says the latest death moved her to try and raise awareness of the dangers. She has started talks with BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and RID (Shelter Cove Resort Improvement District) to place distinctive signs on the two beaches. To facilitate this, McKee has opened a Facebook page and a GoFundMe site to raise awareness of the situation and to raise money for signage that will draw attention to the dangers.

“The fundraiser is to try and support having a local type sign at Big and Little Black Sands,” McKee said. There are signs there already provided by BLM (the Bureau of Land Management) and RID, but, McKee explained, “Support for a memorial that would include the names of people who have lost their lives there is growing.”

She says that the consensus seems to be that official warning signs are often ignored. “People just habitually look through something that looks the same as every other sign,” she believes. “People assume they know what it says. Something local and handmade might draw them in especially visitors. Maybe capture a little more attention.”

Supervisor Estelle Fennell approves of the idea. Fennell says, “I’ve chipped in already…I think the signs are a wonderful idea. They would be a wonderful gift from the community to every visitor. I really love Black Sands beach. It is one of my favorite places to go. But we recognize the inherent dangers of the topography there.” She says she has “put a call into the field manager for BLM letting her know I am 100% behind the project.”

Richard Stenger from the Humboldt County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau said that he is “heartbroken and sick” over the latest death. He says that his organization will be “redoubling our efforts” to inform tourists to “be mindful of the conditions” when they come to the beaches.  Stenger says during this 50th Anniversary of RID (see celebrations planned here,) he and his organization want to “share an undiscovered part of the coast” that even many locals aren’t aware of but he also wants to make sure that visitors are aware of the particular dangers of the two Black Sand beaches.

Fennell says that in addition to signs warning of the danger, she would like to see something honoring the Montana man who recently lost his life. “We need to memorialize the heroics of the father who saved his son,” she said.

At this point, McKee says, the plan is for the danger sign to move beyond functionality. “It will be painted by a local artist with some embellishments to make it look artistic and local,” she said.

If you want to help, like the Facebook page here and you can donate to the GoFundMe fundraiser here.



  • Autumn Hargrave

    It should be noted that Richard Stenger from the Humboldt County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau was fine with inviting tourists right up to the ” tidepools at Black Sands Beach” in a California Weekend Getaway article. I placed calls to his office as well as Cinnamon O’Neill Paula( manager of Garberville Chamber of Commerce) demanding this horribly incorrect misleading information be removed. This was just one article Humboldt County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau supported, what about the other 20 ad campaigns out there? What about the fact that in Shelter Cove we have less than 15 trained and ready emergency personnel to respond to a 911 ” body in the water” call. When tourists are invited to share undiscovered parts of our Black Sands Beach area, where is Richard Stenger and Humboldt County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau to help with the rescue/recovery efforts or comforting family members who are trying to book a flight for a corpse? Tourism is a FOR PROFIT industry. Where is the Ad Money for a Shelter Cove/Black Sands Beach Safety Ad Campaign? That money must have came in second to the invite them in the water and keep them happy ad campaign.

  • Little Black Sands

  • I’ve seen warning signs at dangerous beaches that leave no doubt (example): “Dangerous — at least 12 people have been swept to their death on THIS beach!”, and “… calm-looking waves can change to huge killer-waves without warning!”

    I googled Little Black Sands; I found a California Beaches website… nice photos and description, no warning. Why not leave comments on similar websites, with these warnings.

    • Hi Konabish, Some of us have begun to leave comments on these types of websites. Its a good suggestion. Just be respectful is my word, so people don’t write you off..Thanks for the sign photos.

  • Good News! The Big Black Sands Sign Project has been given permission to go ahead!!

    The Sign Placement will be included with trail work this June as “Nick’s Interns” work on part of the trail leading down to Big Black Sands.

    A Shelter Cove local,Jeff Rose, will hand paint and design the sign and has offered to donate his time. He said he likes to take time when doing signs so they look nice when done. He is a surfer and has a sweet family!

    There will also be a plaque added with names or dates and that will be where attention will go next to see what is required as far as posting names etc.

    “Little Black Sands” is still in the process, but will take more time. It is on RID agenda in April.

    I am still looking for donations to help with cost.
    This project will probably be well below my original amount that I put up on this GoFundMe and that is a good thing.

    I have received a few donations in person that will also be added to the Fund.

    Thank you for everyone that has already donated.

    And a big thank you to “Gary” at BLM for helping get permissions and representing the project!

    And thank you to our local media persons that keep the community in touch with each other!

  • It might be scary, but people respond to the truth.
    “Leave here with happy memories, not in an ambulance… or a body bag”.

  • Autumn contacted our office last week with her quite valid concerns. As I mentioned to her, we immediately removed that reference, and had do the same.

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