Unnecessary Seal Harassment

Why humans and animals can't mix it up at La Jolla Cove

Harbor seals at Children's Pool. "When people go too close to the seals, and one seal gets frightened, she'll often panic into the water, and that causes all the other seals to flush into the water."
  • Harbor seals at Children's Pool. "When people go too close to the seals, and one seal gets frightened, she'll often panic into the water, and that causes all the other seals to flush into the water."
  • Image by Joe Klein

While waiting for public discussion later this fall of a Parks and Recreation Department plan to make Children's Pool available for swimmers, some of La Jolla's residents are busy trying to make precedent out of plans of their own. One camp's partisans routinely enter the water now from the Children's Pool beach, still cordoned off by the city from visitors, and swim north to Seal Rock and back. The other camp has appointed itself guardians of the large seal population that has made the beach its home and regularly chastises or reports to the authorities anyone it deems in violation of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

San Diego's lifeguards, claims Riley, are unnecessarily encouraging seal harassment these days with a message written on the signboard outside their station.

San Diego's lifeguards, claims Riley, are unnecessarily encouraging seal harassment these days with a message written on the signboard outside their station.

Don Riley has made the seals of Children's Pool his special interest for at least ten years. Early every morning he drives his motorhome to the cliffs above the beach, a place he calls "a sacred spot," and assesses the well-being of the seals that each year are visited by thousands of people from all over the world. Riley thinks any human entrance into Children's Pool or onto its beach cannot help disturbing the seals and thereby breaking the law. The Marine Mammal Protection Act is written in such a way that something as little as causing a seal to look up could be interpreted as a violation.

San Diego's lifeguards, claims Riley, are unnecessarily encouraging seal harassment these days with a message written on the signboard outside their station. On a day early this November, the message read: "Persons are allowed to enter Children's Pool as long as seals do not get disturbed." That, from Riley's perspective, is impossible.

According to Riley, a lifeguard lieutenant once told him that seals are protected only on Seal Rock. "But," Riley says, "the law protects seals from humans everywhere."

Several times since late August, from the cliff and the sea wall donated by Ellen Browning Scripps in 1931, visitors watching the seals booed people who had gone beyond the protective cordon onto the beach, yelling at them to get off. In one such incident, several people had walked onto the beach when the seals were gone only to have two seals swim ashore. As the crowds from above began taking notice of the animals, pointing them out and photographing them, the humans on the beach walked toward them and flushed them back into the water. The onlookers made their displeasure known with derisive shouts.

Those who favor human use of Children's Pool, however, maintain that Riley and others provoke incidents like this one by working visitors up and urging them to yell at people on the beach. Feeling endangered by the crowd displays, John Steele and several other La Jolla residents went to court on September 21 and obtained a two-year restraining order against Riley.

Contentiousness over seals increased with the rapid growth of the pinniped population during the 1990s. People from all over San Diego have memories of swimming with seals at Children's Pool. It was a more idyllic time, perhaps, when they could do so, but even today, says Jeanne Perry of La Jolla, seals "come right up next to you while you're snorkeling, and you'll feel something tugging on your fin. Then a head pops up. They're quite curious. And they certainly have the advantage in the water."

What exasperates many today is that, in donating money for a sea wall, Ellen Browning Scripps had intended to create a safe place for children, the handicapped, and the elderly to swim in the ocean. The beach was smaller and farther back from the water then, and few if any seals frequented it. Instead, the seals hauled themselves up onto Seal Rock farther north toward Shell Beach. But as the Children's Pool beach got larger from sands washing onto it, seals migrated to it for the softer rest and sun's warmth it provides. Estimates today put the number of seals using the beach at near 200.

When asked why humans should not return to the beach, Jim Hudnall, from La Jolla Friends of the Seals, says, "When people go too close to the seals, and one seal gets frightened, she'll often panic into the water, and that causes all the other seals to flush into the water. To cause something like that is patently against federal law. So, for practical reasons, it's impossible to share that little piece of sand."

According to Hudnall, sudden flushing of seals into the water can affect their survival adversely. "For instance, anytime they're frightened into the water when moms are with little pups," he says, "there's the chance for mom-and-pup separation. And the Marine Mammal Protection Act is designed to give the animals the best chance for survival they can have on their own." Hudnall did his undergraduate work in geology, worked in marine geology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and did graduate study in oceanography. For the past several years, he has been closely watching seal behavior off the coast of La Jolla.

"The seals," he says, "are now using the Children's Pool beach as a rookery for birthing their pups, nursing their young, and hauling out of the water year-round to reoxygenate their blood, something harbor seals need to do. They have a strong need in the course of their survival to pull out of the water, and there are only certain kinds of places they can do that, fairly sheltered places, because they can't rotate their pelvises up underneath them and walk, the way sea lions can."

The local seals, Hudnall has observed, use the Children's Pool beach more than Seal Rock, except at lower tides. "My theory on that," he says, "which is not proven, is that Seal Rock is eroding at a rapid rate, as is the rest of the coastline in that area, and probably has lowered so much in the last few years that it is not a suitable place for harbor seals to haul out the way it was, say, in the '50s and '60s, when they were using it and not using Children's Pool beach. On most days throughout the winter, you will see, at higher tides, huge waves sweeping across the top of the rock. So, today, Seal Rock is absolutely an impossible place for a mother seal to keep her baby or haul out and stay dry to get warm."

Some who support humans using Children's Pool want to encourage the seals to find another place to haul out. But the seals appear to have no inclination to leave. And that raises the question of how to encourage them to leave, perhaps to return to Seal Rock, which, according to many, offers visitors a good view of the seals, too.

"The last thing the politicians want," says local resident Carl Lind, "is to be shown on video with their agents chasing seals off the beach. But they don't have to do that, because several times a day, at least once, there will be zero seals at the Children's Pool. They have to go out to feed and do whatever they do. So you see this beautiful sandy beach down there with not one seal on it. The way to do it is wait until the seals leave on their own and then hire a rent-a-cop and let him walk back and forth on the beach. This is passive. You can do it without scaring the seals. They'll see some action on the beach and find another place. Right now they might not care [about people on the beach], because they're so used to seeing them. But if the rent-a-cop had a dog on a leash, that might do something. It would be a passive way of doing this."

Jeanne Perry thinks the mere presence of people sitting on the beach would discourage the seals from coming there in the numbers they have been. But she doesn't want to drive them all away. "Think of going to the beach," she says, "and you want to find a patch of sand to sit on. Well, somebody's already got their beach towel there, their beach chair, and their umbrella. You'll move down the beach a little more and find your own patch. Isn't that what seals would do, too?"

The current concentration of seals at Children's Pool makes many surfers in the area worry about sharks, for which seals are natural prey. Melinda Merryweather says some fishermen told her that last winter they spotted a white shark several hundred yards off Windansea beach thrashing a seal in the water. Many marine biologists believe that most shark attacks on humans are "prey-identification mistakes."

Merryweather has lived in La Jolla all her life. "A thing that's scaring me now is that we're attracting sharks, and my son is a surfer. The city has been warned that this is a scary possibility."

Other, less serious but still unpleasant possibilities have occurred to Merryweather. "At any moment," she says, "the seals could go around to the Cove and take it over. What are we going to do then? What happens when ten of them start lying down at La Jolla Shores? Harbor seals are not endangered in any size, shape, or form.

"My grandmother swam at the Children's Pool, my mom swam there, I swam there, I taught my son to swim there, and I now want to teach my granddaughter to swim there, because it is one of the safest places that we have to swim in the ocean.

"The awful thing that has happened," continues Merryweather, "is that we have lost one of our most beautiful resources, which is criminal. There should never be loss of any beach, anywhere in the world. Nobody should ever be told they can't go on a beach. That police barrier, that piece of rope up there at the Children's Pool, is ridiculous. To tell you the truth, the other day I walked right through it. Myself and a swimmer. And the seals didn't move. We were within our rights. Unless you bother the seals, it is no big deal. I would like to go down there and talk to the seals and say to them, 'Do you know that a whole generation is going to miss swimming at this pool that all our other generations of humans swam at? Would you guys mind moving down the beach a way?' And I think they would say, 'Sure.' "

At the April 1 council meeting last spring, Jim Hudnall handed Mayor Murphy a stack of more than 11,000 signed petitions asking the city to make Children's Pool a seal reserve. The city council ignored the petition in favor of ordering a study on how to make Children's Pool suitable for swimming again. An announcement of that plan is now more than two months overdue.

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