On one stretch of California coast, it’s sand, sea, and man vs. beast
A years-long legal battle for a La Jolla cove may be ending – but for activists on both sides, the seal saga goes on.
It’s a sunny summer Tuesday, and in the waters off La Jolla Cove, kayakers paddle toward underwater caves and swimmers dot the surface. At Children’s Pool, a sliver of beach sheltered by a 300-foot-long crescent-shaped wall, the sand is white, the water is a shimmery blue-green, and the smell – well, the smell is terrible.
The air is thick with the stench of seal poop – a scent as sour as the years-long battle for this tiny piece of shoreline. For over a decade, it’s been the pinnipeds vs. the people in a fight for control, with activists on both sides using everything from heckling and restraining orders to lawsuits and a stun gun to draw and redraw their respective lines in the sand.
Seals have been gathering here since the 1990s, gradually making Children’s Pool – created as a place for families and children – a seal rookery, a place for the animals to have babies, rest, and relieve themselves. These days, given the water’s bacteria levels, it’s no longer considered safe for humans to swim.
Until very recently, the city was asking visitors to stay behind a rope barrier that protected seals lounging at the water’s edge. But in 2005, a California Superior Court ordered the city to take down the rope, remove the seals, and clean up the pool. Animal-rights activists appealed the decision, but last month, a US Appeals Court refused to hear their case. The California Supreme Court has also declined to hear it. The city has already begun the permitting process to clear the way for dredging, says Stacey LoMedico, San Diego’s Parks and Recreation director. But that process will probably take years, and in the meantime, the battle rages on.
Today is quiet: About 50 brown and gray seals rest on the beach. Several signs warn that seals are protected by federal law; other signs, posted by animal-rights activists, beg visitors to “Respect The Seals and Other Seal Watchers By Not Going On The Beach.” On this perfect beach day, Children’s Pool sits unused, at least by humans.
But on weekends, Children’s Pool becomes a war zone, the site of an ongoing showdown between animal-rights activists and the divers and swimmers who don’t want their beach access trumped by pinnipeds. Over the July 4 holiday weekend, pro-public-access activists used a bullhorn to encourage visitors to use the beach. One pup died after reportedly being stepped on; SeaWorld rescued another.
“It’s pretty wild,” says Tom Sauer, a retired attorney and longtime La Jolla resident who believes the beach should be returned to the people. On weekends, “People stand here yelling at each other,” he says. “I don’t come down here then. I don’t like the vibe.”
Children’s Pool is one of the only urban beaches in the country where harbor seals congregate – this, despite attention from tens of thousands of tourists each month.
“This is a rare thing,” says Bryan Pease, founder and general counsel of the San Diego-based Animal Protection and Rescue League. “This is a place to see seals behaving naturally in their natural environment.”
But how natural is it for seals to give birth a stone’s throw from pricey boutiques, four-star restaurants, and luxury hotels?
“It’s just the evolution of the coastline,” says Mr. Pease. “No one predicted this 80 years ago, when they built the sea wall.”
That 300-foot-long stone wall was the gift of philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, who hoped to make the beach a safe place for children to play and swim. In 1931 the state deeded the land to the city of San Diego with a few conditions, including its exclusive use as a public park and children’s pool. But the same wall that made this sandy nook tranquil enough for children has, over time, made it attractive to seals.
Advocates of the seals’ presence point out that the deed doesn’t say seals can’t use the beach. And the seals, after all, have been in this area for thousands of years. “Expecting them not to use the beach when it’s a prime haul-out [resting] area is asking too much,” says Vicky Cornish, vice president for marine-wildlife conservation at Ocean Conservancy in Washington D.C.
As for humans and seals sharing the beach, Mr. Sauer says simply, “It doesn’t work.” Even what to call the area is a point of contention. Pro-seal activists call it Casa Beach; pro-public-access activists call it Children’s Pool.
Sauer, walking along the coastline, points out the route he swims nearly every day. When he gets to Children’s Pool, the beach is empty except for a few seals.
“This is what shared use looks like,” he says. Pro-seal activists man an information table and hand out brochures. Several times each week, they videotape pro-public-access advocates who walk or run close to seals on their way into Children’s Pool. Those swims – tainted water and all – are part of the opposite side’s effort to flush seals back into the water and make a point about public access.
If human beachcombers are rare, that may be because it’s not entirely clear what they’re allowed to do. While some signs warn people to leave seals alone, others read: “There is no law against using this public beach.” The rules are confusing, the signs and the activists sometimes intimidating. Most people keep to the top of the stone wall and to walkways above the beach – a sight that continually frustrates Sauer.
“This beach belongs to the public ... for full recreational use,” he says. “Seals don’t need the level of protection where we tell people, ‘You can’t swim on this beach, you can’t walk on this beach.’ Look, I love the seals; my wife loves the seals. But they can go to the other side of the beach, to the reefs.... We have a colony here of 200 – they won’t be gone.”
Experts say Sauer is probably right. Seals are found widely in the North Pacific, from Alaska to Baja California. Pam Yochem, a marine biologist at San Diego’s Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, estimates that there are about 1,000 seal haul-out sites in California, with four in southern California.
These days a security guard spends weekends on the beach, charged with keeping the place accessible to people and keeping the people from harassing the seals.
On a recent Saturday, a group of cyclists from Oceanside, Calif., stand on a walkway overlooking Children’s Pool. “It’s a lot more fun watching seals than watching kids,” says one.
A man from Amsterdam photographs a pup and says, “There are other spots to swim, but only one spot for the animals.”
Matt Hough, a San Diegan, sits enjoying the view. The mere mention of the ongoing tug-of-war irritates him. “The city should just take down the wall,” he says. “If the seals stay, they stay. There’s tons of shoreline here. Really, there are safer places to take kids to swim.”
The next day, I take my own kids to Children’s Pool, and the controversy becomes a family debate. About 50 seals are on the beach, and a few pups flop-hop around. My daughter, who is 12, snaps photos and finds it “weird” that we’re reluctant to go down the steps. “I think it should be for the kids. It’s such a special place for swimming,” she says.
My son believes the seals should stay. “You can’t control nature. It does whatever it’s going to do,” he says, sounding awfully contemplative for a 9-year-old. “And they are really cute.”