Questions arise about details of seal harassment video at La Jolla Children’s Pool

Sara Wan (at microphone) with husband Larry Wan of the WAN Conservancy, addressed the public at Children's Pool beach during an event held earlier this year to unveil the newly installed "seal cam" atop the condemned lifeguard tower. Pat Sherman photos

By Pat Sherman

Two young women captured last month by the newly installed “seal cam” at Children’s Pool beach were observed kicking, punching, sitting on and pulling the flippers of pregnant harbor seals and their pups. It is a claim that has been repeated as fact by local and national news sources, and used as justification by Mayor Bob Filner in a permit application to close the Children’s Pool at night through pupping season.

The abuse assertion was first made by Larry Wan, founder of the Western Alliance for Nature (WAN) Conservancy. Wan’s nonprofit purchased the camera mounted atop the old lifeguard tower at Children’s Pool, which streamed the alleged incident.

Though it is clear that harassment of seals occurs in the footage produced by Wan, many have questioned his claim that the grainy video actually shows the women making physical contact with the seals — let alone employing the level of violence he claims.

Friends of the Children’s Pool President Ken Hunrichs is one such skeptic.

“I can’t see it either,” said Hurichs, noting that while his pro-beach access organization doesn’t condone cruelty toward nor harassment of any animal, members of his organization are nevertheless suspicious of the timing of the video’s release, just weeks after the mayor approved installation of the camera (ostensibly for scientific research and to monitor seal births).

“We can’t prove anything … (but) the exact nature of these girls’ actions, it makes a lot of us suspicious,” Hunrichs said. “This seems so staged and over-the-top.”

Larry Wan and wife, Sara, said they were alerted to the harassment by website viewers in Australia, who recorded some of the footage from the WAN Conservancy’s site via smartphone.

Larry Wan, a wildlife photographer and former mayor of Malibu, where he and his wife reside, failed to respond to a request to speak with the Australian who allegedly alerted them to the abuse, once hanging up the phone when contacted by the La Jolla Light.

Sara Wan, who served on the California Coastal Commission for more than 10 years, and has been hailed as a staunch advocate for preserving  access to public beaches told the Light earlier in the week that she was pleased with Mayor Filner’s decision to close the beach.

Sara Wan (right) greets Friends of the La Jolla Seals' Jane Reldan during the launch of the 'seal cam' at Children's Pool, as mayor Filner looks on. Pat Sherman

“I think it’s not only appropriate, but a good idea and we thank the mayor,” she said. “It makes enforcement easier and gives more protection to the seals.”

Wan repeated the couple’s assertion that a woman from Australia recorded the footage.

“I’m assuming she put her iPhone up to the screen,” she said, “(but) there are programs where you can capture what’s on your screen and record it.”

Wan said the women in the live feed were recorded harassing the seals twice during the same night —once between 8 and 8:30 p.m. and again from midnight to 12:50 a.m.

Wan said she and her husband were alerted to the harassment and started filming their own footage during the later time period.

“By that time I was watching and knew what was going on,” she said.

Capt. Brian Ahearn with San Diego Police’s Northern Division said police are investigating the video and still photos to see if they can identify the suspects or any witnesses.

“We’re looking at one potential screen shot (a little closer) that might have the license plate of a vehicle,” he said. “It’s very grainy.”

Asked if police have spoken with the woman in Australia who allegedly recorded the video, Ahearn said police had “attempted to contact them,” though he was unsure whether detectives were successful.

“We’re trying to evaluate even the motive,” he said. “Were these people out there purposefully trying to generate all of this tension through the Children’s Pool? We haven’t ruled that out either.”

Ahearn said that though some mild harassment of seals occurs, the behavior seen in the footage — and specifically the behavior alleged to have occurred by Larry Wan (what Filner frequently refers to as the actions of “professional seal harassers”) — is an anomaly at the Children’s Pool.

“The way it’s being talked about by some people (is) that this is continual, (that) there’s been a pattern of this and I just don’t have evidence to show that it’s a pattern,” Ahearn said.

“This is a one-time deal, but it’s kind of become the poster child of the Children’s Pool and I just don’t think that that’s an accurate representation of the activity that’s gone on there over the years. … I’ve been involved in this on and off since 2005 and nothing even remotely close to this has occurred.”

However, Ahearn said, “We’re treating it as a legitimate event until we can prove otherwise.”

Who’s behind the lens?

Sara Wan said the WAN Conservancy relies on a team of remote camera operators to monitor the seals and zoom in when one is giving birth or nursing a pup.

Aside from her and her husband, Wan said the camera operators are all based in San Diego, with several belonging to the La Jolla Friends of Seals organization. Others are whale-watching docents or belong to other environmental organizations, though she declined to elaborate.

“They have asked that their names not be used because they are so concerned about retaliation,” she said. “A couple of them are really nervous.”

Wan said most camera operators are volunteers, though 20 to 25 percent are paid. Operators work round the clock, in four-hour shifts, and complete a monitoring form every hour noting the number of seals on the beach, in the water and on rocks, as well as the number of people on the beach and how many people are in front of or behind the seal guideline rope. (The rope is intended to keep the public a safe distance from pregnant or nursing harbor seals.)

Wan said the forms are sent to the California Coastal Commission (CCC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is tasked with enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Though the CCC didn’t request that the forms be sent to them, Wan said the agency asked for increased monitoring of the seals when they voted in favor of a year-round guideline rope last summer. “So in a way, they have asked for it,” she said.

The Wans said purchase and installation of the camera cost them about $40,000. When viewing live feed of seals at the WAN Conservancy website, visitors find a banner encouraging them to donate to the cost of the camera.

Before the alleged seal abuse made national headlines, Larry Wan estimated that 1,000 viewers from around the world were visiting the page per day.

Sara Wan said the conservancy had “gotten some donations, but we certainly haven’t recovered all of that ($40,000).” She said it was up to the conservancy board to disclose how much they’ve raised thus far.

Asked if the donation banner would be removed from the website once the conservancy has recouped camera costs, Sara Wan said, “Why would we? We’re a legitimate nonprofit organization … and it will continue to cost money for the camera and to run the program. There will still be considerable administrative costs, insurance, all kinds of costs that are continuing. … (We may) need to hire monitors because we don’t have enough (volunteers).”

Wan said she has not heard whether the mayor plans to keep the seal cam in place beyond the end of pupping season on May 15 (the only time it is currently permitted for), or whether it will be reinstalled next pupping season.

However, it will have to come off the condemned lifeguard tower if the city maintains its target schedule to demolish the tower and build a new one beginning in June.

YouTube Preview Image
• VIDEO: To see the video of seals being harassed by two young women at La Jolla’s Children’s Pool beach in February 2013, click on the image above or go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1d1VhkFbbkc

• SEE PREVIOUS STORY and VIDEO: Seals being harassed while caught on video at http://www.lajollalight.com/?p=101799

• SEE RELATED STORY:Mayor orders Children’s Pool in La Jolla closed after dark through May 15” at http://www.lajollalight.com/?p=103605

Related posts:

  1. UPDATED (3/21): Mayor orders Children’s Pool in La Jolla closed after dark through May 15
  2. Mayor shares details of recently installed ‘seal cam’ at La Jolla Children’s Pool
  3. UPDATED (Jan. 25): Webcam to monitor seals installed at La Jolla Children’s Pool
  4. Updated with Video: Police ordered to ‘keep the peace’ at La Jolla Children’s Pool
  5. Mayor extends length of pupping season rope at La Jolla Children’s Pool

Short URL: http://www.lajollalight.com/?p=103934

Posted by Pat Sherman on Mar 22, 2013. Filed under Featured Story, La Jolla, News, Seal Watch. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

17 Comments for “Questions arise about details of seal harassment video at La Jolla Children’s Pool”

  1. Ryan

    Great article La Jolla Light! Props to Pat Sherman for investigating this.

  2. Cheri Jacobs Aspenleiter

    It is clear to me that the abuse was staged. There is no contact with feet, its all a dance of a show deliberately staged . These people are making a lot of money, from donations. These people have been known to slash tires of the people who are trying to save this human ocean swimming pool for the purpose that it was built for. And the construction in June will have to be delayed to redraw the plans to include an ADA ramp to the high water mark as per the ADA law for beaches. The sand should be dredged out and the sluiceways re-opened to keep the pool clean. The seals need to be removed back to Seal Rock ,the official rookery. This could be the best ADA Ocean Swimming Pool in the world. The ramp there is the first handicapped ramp on a beach in California, it needs to be updated to ADA codes or another one built and keep that ramp for maintenance purposes as to be occurring by the City per the Trust and the State law.,since Miss Scripps donated this swimming pool to the City. The City refuses to maintain this CA State Beach. This is not a seal pool, it is a Children’s Bathing Pool and a Marine Mammal park does not work with this official and original use per the Trust,. The Marine Mammal Protection Agency and the City of San Diego are responsible for causing the beach to become polluted,, with seal feces and afterbirth, Not good for a children’s swimming pool and playground. Beachballs and Frisbees ARE allowed there really. And of course it would scare the seals into the water, therefore –The seals need to be relocated immediately for their own good and to keep the Pool for Humans mostly. Its not working to have seals there. And they have unbalanced the underwater ecosystem, its become a dessert. Even the mussels are gone, the basic source of food for most creatures that live there, including sea stars, lobster and seals. All are gone, too many seals folks. And not healthy in an enclosed pool, creating a seal toilet with the smell and bacteria. Its a wheelchair swimmers delight there and that is the higher good as well. People will bring their handicapped children and family to experience the ocean. they will stay in the hotels and eat at the restaurants and see the sites, and will bring tourists a-plenty. And the seals will be all around the pool and still swim in for a visit , With the sand dredged out back to the Natural condition of the topography , the seals will not pup and poop there. This is the vision of Ellen Scripps, the major benefactor of Scripp’s Institute of Oceanography, where she envisioned the study of the Sea, and The Children’s pool where she envisioned the enjoyment, and the learning of the sea to bring about the love of the sea, the respect and the stewardship. Look around La Jolla and know this vision Ms. Scripps had. This is a pool for humans. The Marine Mammal Agencies need to wise up, and relocate these seals just across the way. This is a very small area designed only for people not the seals that Sea World dropped off. Even the sand is not natural for this pool. It was a bad move to allow the seals a foot hold, so correct the mistake,, and relocate them gently and restore the pool and This Jewel of La Jolla. San Diego will be known as the City with the Wheelchair Pool and the pool where kids can learn. And the City that supports the handicapped, It will be Famous and cause prosperity for La Jolla and San Diego, not fights and slashed tires and fake videos that have duped the Mayor. Let these people go save the ocean from plastic pollution, or save the Eastern Pacific Gray Whales that number only 150. There are too many seals, and it would be a good idea to move them out before the now protected Great White Shark moves in.

    • Ray

      Although I agree with Cheri’s observatons, I find it ironic that she asserts that the marine ecosystem here “has become a dessert!” More than just a dessert, the fauna of the adjacent La Jolla Marine Reserve have become the appetizer and main course for the voracious seals as well. Good investigative work, Pat Sherman! Keep up the reporting on this topic, since the U-T prints mostly editorials and sentimental cute animal stories now.

    • Heidi

      Who are you to say there is too many of any living creature! What are you, the population police of the world? It is thinking like this that is ruining our planet. I know, let’s put all the animals on animal reservations. If that does not work for them, too bad. Survival of the fittest I guess. When all the beauty of the earth is wiped out because it wasn’t convenient for the humans, people like you are going to be the first to blame someone else, or maybe you just won’t care. I am sad for this world and the ingratitude we show for our only home….so sad. Your arrogance and ignorance is astounding, your top of the food chain mentality is abhorrent. F.Y.I., harbor seals are on the endangered species list, people are not. Can’t we live with nature instead of trying to bend it to our needs? By the way, I am a nurse, so I am all for making life better for the handicapped, but I don’t see them as different from us, nor do they want to be seen that way.

  3. LOOK at the first few seconds and you see the camera control console on the left. Obviously taken at camera headquarters, not some foreign site. Note the camera is tight in for every move so somebody was running the controls late at night, but in 5 hours of watching did not call police. This was staged and it has PETA written all over it.

  4. Clear Lee

    CAN YOU SAY STAGED????

  5. so

    Cheri and John – really????? This video was taken 3.20.13 – you CANNOT dispute that the seals are being harassed. http://www.10news.com/news/new-video-shows-more-harbor-seal-harassment-at-la-jollas-childrens-pool

    • Ray LJHS '74

      The question is, who is doing the harassing and to what end? At the end of the day, these semi-domesticated harbor seals have lost their natural fear of humans. If they really minded the “harassment,” why didn’t they flush into the water? The outsiders who have caused this controversy will flush more readily than the seals when their true agenda is exposed to the light of day. The Wans and their pseudo-scientific and eponymous “conservancy” may only in this for the money.

  6. Jess DaFax

    KUDOS TO PAT SHERMAN! Finally, we have a local beat writer not willing to stand by and accept the story at face value….especially one that has an odor of impossibility and lack of credibility like this one!

  7. Nemo

    Something fishy going on here!

  8. Bruce

    Interesting that as soon as the webcam was installed it found harassment of the seals? Only because it is endemic. Not a day goes by that somebody doesn’t cross that rope and harass those seals.

    If you are crowding them and interfering with nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering of those seals, you are in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The physical assault shown in that video is more extreme than usual, but it’s not out of the current norm.

    As for the history of the pool, when they built the seawall, they bridged two landmarks, one was named Seal Rock, the other, Seal Rock Point. The seals are not the new comers, they’ve only reclaimed their old territory.

    Thank you, Mayor Filner for being willing to follow federal law, and enforcing the MMPA!

  9. Califia

    A disgraced, former Coastal Commissioner from the elite hills of Malibu with an agenda and undue political influence. Could La Jolla beach access be any more threatened than by this staged event that fooled the mayor into overreacting so quickly to shut off public access to a beach?

    Cove swimmers beware. This is coming soon to your favorite swimming hole. The WAN’s will be moving on closing down the Cove next with their gang of seal zealots to do their dirty work. When will we learn and put a stop to this nonsense?

  10. Cheri Jacobs Aspenleiter

    I predicted that the seals and sea lions would begin to starve as a result of human intervention. Either restore the Children’s Pool to the condition it was in 1932 or demo it back to natural reef and deep natural pool- no sand.
    FRiends of the seals become friends of the sea and go after the plastic pollution problem. Save elephants which are quickly going away from poaching. Save the Eastern Pacific Gray Whale, who’s numbers are 150 or so. So very many other creature are seriously threatened, why not take your energies and money and really save a creature that needs saving. Please.

  11. Shawn

    I have made a public offer of a $1,000.00 reward for the identification of these despicable human beings. What is taking place at the seal rookery is nothing short of animal cruelty. We need to put a stop to this now ! God bless the Mayor for what he has done. Shawn

  12. Dennis

    Thank you Shawn and Thank You, Mayor Filner. It’s about time. These incidents were not staged. I’ve seen the miserably unhappy selfish anti-seal crowd run down onto the sand to scare and scatter the seals. I’ve also seen imbeciles throwing frisbees at the seals. I will testify to this as I’ve seen it with my own eyes. 75 miles of public beach in San Diego and a handful of ugly people don’t want the seals on 300 feet of sand. God only knows what happens at night. Sad. La Jolla has become a California embarrassment and a laughing stock throughout the world as these incidents continue to make news around the globe. Very sad.

  13. Brady

    The pool was for the children, if the city and these activist want it turned over to the seals they need to refund the Scripps family the adjusted cost of the pool, which would be over $1.2 million.

  14. Yes the pool was for children… like me on summer excursions from Gillespie Cottage. In the 1950′s this is how I learned to love the ocean, and learned to swim. Now, in the 2013 time frame, I think that the pool should have the sand dredged completely to the 1950′s condition, at city expense, and the drains opened… It was often a clear view of the undersea life, but now it’s just a cloudy pigeon free for all…

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