To their fans, the 200 harbor seals who live off the shore of San Diego's wealthiest enclave are lovable creatures who deserve a place to breed and sunbathe in peace. To others, they're thieves who've robbed kids of a place to swim.
For years, locals have fought a bitter battle over which species - people or pinniped - deserves the right to lollygag at a popular children's beach. Now, it looks as if the flap will be resolved far from the water's edge - in court.
Environmentalists last week filed a lawsuit demanding that the city reverse its recent decision to open the beach to the flippered and flipperless alike. Meanwhile, a cofounder of the Greenpeace Foundation reportedly threatened to launch a global tourist boycott of San Diego if the seals don't get their beach back.
At issue is a small cove and beach in San Diego's ritzy La Jolla neighborhood. Partially enclosed by a man-made breakwater, the so-called Children's Pool has long been popular for its calm and shallow waters, perfect for wading by the toddler set.
"It's very different from other beaches," says Clifton Williams, chief of staff for San Diego Councilman Scott Peters.
To the delight of locals and tourists, a colony of seals in the 1990s turned the beach into a rookery, a place for breeding, nursing, sleeping, and sunning. Seal waste polluted the seawater, however, and the city temporarily closed the beach to swimming. It was later reopened, with a rope barrier to keep humans away from the seals. But a divided City Council voted last month to remove the rope and work toward "shared use," regardless of possible risks from close human-seal contact.
Serge Dedina, executive director of Wildcoast, a local environmental organization, claims that the "elite millionaires" of La Jolla, where the median home price is $890,000, "don't like the fact that you've got a diverse group of San Diegans at that beach," seal-gazing from the sidelines. Those residents, he says, have derided the Children's Pool as a "poor man's Sea World."
Paul Kennerson, an attorney defending the activists who favor "joint access," says foes like Mr. Dedina simply don't understand the dispute. "Nobody is out to hurt seals or get rid of them, harm them, or even touch them," he says. "They can have any beach that isn't dedicated for children's use."
Animal-rights activists, however, contend that human use is trumped by a 1972 federal law that protects sea life. "It's very clear that you're not supposed to allow people near those animals," Dedina says.
The National Marine Fisheries Service invoked the law in 2003 when it cited a group of local residents - dubbed the "La Jolla Nine" - who allegedly scared 50 seals away after they swam to the Children's Pool. But an agency spokesman admits that illegal seal "harassment" is hard to define.
A few seals have retreated to large rocks just off the shore, where visitors can still watch them. Some observers worry that the seal colony will skedaddle, perhaps to small uninhabited islands off the southern California coastline.
La Jolla retiree Florence Friedman hopes the seals will stay. Not too long ago, she brought a friend's grandchildren to look at the seals after a visit to the San Diego Zoo. "One of the kids said this is so much better," she recalls. "This isn't animals cooped up. This is nature."
Climbing out of the water onto the Children's Pool beach after snorkeling, investment bank worker Justin Gooderham has a similar opinion: "The seals," he says, "have the right of way."