Robert Wills and his family made the jaunt from Martinez to southern Marin two weeks ago to do the 1.5-mile hike out to Tennessee Beach, hoping to see the massive waves promised by that day’s the surf advisory.
The high surf was in full force, but the Wills’ attention, and that of more than a dozen other people at the beach, was quickly diverted by the complete collapse of the natural archway along the cliffs on the north end of Tennessee Beach, a landmark feature there for decades. The heavy rains of the days prior to Dec. 29 apparently had made the arch more fragile.
“Everyone around the beach was just staring at the arch – and then the whole thing fell apart,” said Wills, who is pursuing his doctorate in earth science at the California Institute of Technology. The fallen arch, Wills said, morphed into a massive pile of dirt and rocks on the beach below and produced a sound of such force that it briefly drowned out the waves.
Wills said he spotted a rock fall from the arch soon after they arrived at the beach at around 1:30 p.m.
“I didn’t think much of it,” he said.
After about a half-hour, a much larger set of rocks fell, looking like a large pile of dirt. Just two minutes later, “The whole arch fell apart,” he said.
Just like that, one of the many scenic elements of Tennessee Beach, along with the ocean view that seems to be perfectly framed by the cliffs on either side of the beach, was gone.
Despite the relative speed at which this naturally occurring wonder plummeted, Wills documented it in great detail from just a short distance away, snapping dozens of photos.
He did so from the north side of the small channel that separates the two sections of the beach, staring into his camera’s viewfinder as the pounding surf approached.
“My mom was a bit alarmed – she thought I was going to get hit by a tidal wave or something,” Wills said.
The family bumped into a National Park Service ranger on their way out and told him what happened. They later supplied the park service with photos of the incident.
"This is a prime example of the dynamic nature of the California coastline," said Howard Levitt, spokesman for the National Park Service. "But seldom does anyone get to witness it in this sort of way. And Robert's photos are just spectacular."
Robert Willis’ father Chris, who is an engineering geologist with the California Geological Survey, also passed on the news and the photos to a number of geology professors. Robert Wills said many of them have been impressed by the photos and intend to use them in their classes. He’s also posted them on his blog with a detailed description of the event.
“It was pretty amazing,” he said.