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