The unconfirmed story goes that Jacques Cousteau, the famous red-beanie-wearing French explorer, was traveling down the Big Sur coast in search of sea otters when he saw a sign for an oceanographic research institute. Naturally, he stopped in.
What Cousteau didn’t know, what no one knew, was that the compound bearing a benign-seeming seahorse insignia wasn’t a research institute at all – it was a top-secret Navy installation on the front lines of the Cold War.
Cousteau was turned away, directed elsewhere to find his otters. But his modern-day equivalent would be welcomed (provided they show up just before 2:30pm on a Saturday), and given a one-hour walking tour and a brief history lesson. The compound is now a designated State Historic Park, with tours run weekly by the Central Coast Lighthouse Keepers (CCLK), the same nonprofit that has for years operated and worked to restore the nearby Point Sur Lighthouse.
But let’s go back to the history, and stick to the confirmed stuff this time.
From 1958 to 1984 the Naval Facility in Big Sur was home to a Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) – top-notch technology of the time that the U.S. military used to eavesdrop on Soviet submarines. Using a long cable laid on the ocean floor, with hydrophones at various intervals, specially-trained “ocean systems technicians” listened for the distinctive frequency of Soviet submarines and triangulated their approximate location based on the sound. About 100 enlisted sailors lived and worked on the base. All in all there were 27 such listening stations around the world, including two others in California. The SOSUS was important historically because it was secret – the USSR didn’t know about the capacity until near the end of the war when American spy John Walker spilled the beans. It’s also an example of how modern wars are waged: By staying a step or two ahead of the adversary, technologically-speaking.
The Big Sur NAVFAC is important now, proponents argue, because it is among the only preserved examples of its kind – if you interpret “preserved” in the most fundamental sense, that is. “The best thing that happens to a lot of historical places is history passes them by,” says Carol O’Neil, state park volunteer and historian with CCLK. The facility was declared excess Navy property in 2000 and ceded to California State Parks. For years after it remained mostly empty – some State Parks and Highway Patrol employees lived in the family housing close to Highway 1, and some of the facilities were used for research. But then money ran out and mold was discovered in the housing and the whole thing was abandoned. Today, the compound’s buildings (dormitories, a cafeteria, a movie theater and more) are in a severe state of disrepair – paint peeling, windows broken, ceilings falling down.
Enthusiastic volunteers want to change that, though. They want to share the NAVFAC’s unique history with locals and visitors alike, preserve the complex and, where they can, begin restoring the buildings. This is no small job and the attention to detail is precise – during one recent volunteer work day, a lot of discussion centered on picking the right paint for the walls of one office.
“If we live long enough and get enough money, we will be doing some of that,” says John O’Neil, chair of the CCLK, likening the project to the restoration work the group has done at the lighthouse.
Tours began in the fall of 2019 and have been off-and-on due to Covid. It’s “very popular with Cold Warriors,” Carol says, referring to people who had some involvement in the military in that era. On a Memorial Day weekend tour, attendees included a family who’d come to camp in Big Sur for the weekend and figured they’d learn a little history while they were at it, and a couple who recently moved to Monterey County from Germany, making an effort to get to know their new home.
Carol and John concede that saving near history is hard, but they believe it’s important. “Where else would [people] hear this story?” John asks. “This is the most historic thing on the coast, we can’t get rid of this.”