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A veteran Coast Guard pilot who flew a search and rescue mission over the roiling ocean for six hours said he had never seen anything like it.

“Even from the air, you could actually smell the mud from the ocean floor. As it flowed, you saw the blackness of the water because it was all mixing together,” said Lt. Cmdr. Brent Bergan.

On the central coast in Santa Cruz, loose fishing boats crashed into one another and docks broke away from the shore. The water rushed out as quickly as it poured in, leaving the boats tipped over in mud. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that 30-40 boats were damaged or destroyed.

Some surfers ignored evacuation warnings and took advantage of the waves ahead of the tsunami.

“The tides are right, the swell is good, the weather is good, the tsunami is there,” said William Hill, an off-duty California trooper. “We’re going out.”

Scientists warned that the first tsunami waves are not always the strongest. The threat can last for several hours and people should watch out for strong currents.

U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Ken Hudnut said residents along the coast should heed any calls for evacuation.

“Do the right thing,” Hudnut said. “Be safe.”

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Associated Press writers contributing to this report include Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu, Janie McCauley on the Big Island, Denise Petski and Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles, Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz, Calif., Garance Burke in San Francisco, Kathy McCarthy in Seattle, Nigel Duara in Seaside, Ore., Jeff Barnard in Crescent City, Calif., Tim Fought in Portland, Ore., Rob Gillies in Toronto, Alicia Chang in Pasadena, Calif., Terry Tang, Michelle Price and Carson Walker in Phoenix. Mark Niesse contributed from Ewa Beach, Hawaii. Song reported from Honolulu.