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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.”