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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.

By Correspondent / July 29, 2008



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.

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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.”

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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.

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