At about 3 p.m PT Thursday, the bride was swept from Lover's Point in Pacific Grove by 25-foot waves as she and her husband took pictures.
"They tried to run from it, but it got them," said A.J. Young of Monterey, who was watching and immediately called 911 on his cell phone.
The woman's husband jumped in after her to attempt a rescue, said Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Pam Hockaday.
They were both plucked from the water about 15 minutes later by rescuers in a boat. The husband was relatively unscathed but the woman died within minutes.
Surfers could not resist the lure of the big surf. Crowds gathered ashore to watch, but some saw a young man get smothered by the waves.
In the early afternoon Thursday, Danny Jordan, 20, of San Jose lost control of his surfboard at New Brighton State Park in Capitola.
"He got pushed down under the water...He didn't come up...Before we knew it, he was just washed up on the beach," one witness said.
Rescuers brought the man off the beach to a dry area, but his injuries were too severe; they could not save him.
The waves are caused by a swirling storm up to 800 miles wide, which hovered off the coast for about a day before moving inland, pushing the water toward land.
Swells of 15 feet were expected Friday along the central California coast, where docks have been knocked down and homes flooded.
Rescue crews were scheduled to continue their two-day-old search Friday for a sailor missing after his 40-foot sailboat's mast broke some 600 miles off the Northern California coast. The Coast Guard, Air Force, Navy and a merchant ship are trying to help the sailor, who was initially buffeted by 50-foot seas.
"It was like throwing a brick in the ocean and big ripples form," said National Weather Service meteorologist Dan Keirns.
The big waves hit the coasts of Washington and Oregon before dawn Thursday, then began slamming the Northern California coast near Capitola in early afternoon - right at high tide.
One city worker in Pacific Grove said he had not seen so much debris from the ocean on city streets since 1957.
The powerful waves, which reached 40 feet in parts of Northern California, lured spectators to the shores to watch the ocean's fury.
"This was not just surf," said Santa Cruz harbor port director Brian Foss. "This was a surge, a huge pulse in the ocean."
It destroyed boats and forced driftwood onto the streets of Monterey. Water, mud and seaweed covered famous 17-Mile Drive in Pebble Beach. The ocean topped the Capitola sea wall, forcing wharf, restaurant and hotel evacuations.