La Jolla Cove Swim Club v Sea Lions: Things may be getting back to normal says president

In recent years, the La Jolla Cove beach and waters have become a hotbed of community contention due to problems stemming from the burgeoning sea lion population there. La Jollans have sat through dozens of committee hearings, four “Crisis at The Cove” Town Council forums, and plowed through a 91-page City report on how to best handle the health and safety issues the sea lions have caused.

But through it all, La Jolla Cove Swim Club members continued to peacefully come together for informal swims, social gatherings, camaraderie and a collective appreciation for open-ocean swimming. There are currently more than 1,300 active members (primarily from San Diego County), and nearly 2,300 followers on Facebook.

“The Cove is unique and that’s why we want to protect the ability to recreate there,” said Swim Club president Dan Simonelli. “There is nowhere else in San Diego where you can jump into the water and see an abundance of marine life, and that is relatively safe in terms of swimming in the open ocean. There are no huge waves like at a beach and the waters are clear. There are caves to explore and there is a lot to experience. It’s special that way.”

The La Jolla Cove Swim Club is a social group that meets monthly for friendly gatherings (such as Sunday picnics, barbecues, parties and a banquet in December) that are often punctuated by quick ocean dips or lengthier swims. There are also special events throughout the year, like the Polar Bear Plunge on the first day of each new year, the Pier to Cove Swim that took place June 24, and the 10-Mile Relay in September that benefits the American Diabetes Association, San Diego Junior Lifeguard Foundation and La Jolla Cove Swim Club.

The Club was formally incorporated as a 501(c)7 — non-profit social and recreation clubs — in 1993, but was an informal club for years before that. The dues are $20 a year, and “purposely low” to keep enrollment open year-round. Simonelli said there are new members signing up every month.

Seven-year member Craig Johnston, who has been a competitive swimmer for most of his life, said the members of the Club tend to be cut from a different cloth. “We have people from all walks of life here — engineers, attorneys, teachers — people who do everything. The Club brings these people together. Among them, you feel that common bond of being an ocean swimmer and knowing the other person is different, like you.”

A place of peace

For swimmers who take to the open ocean, there is no comparison to swimming in other places, and many were introduced to La Jolla Cove by a friend or loved one, making the landmark that much more special.

Simonelli, who joined the Club in 2009, said there is an “energy” to the ocean and a “freedom” to being out there.

“I’d swim in the ocean as a lifeguard, and I was in the U.S. Marine Corps and stationed at Camp Pendleton. I swam quite a bit in my younger days, too, but then with work and raising a family, I wasn’t doing it as much,” he said. “When my oldest daughter joined Junior Lifeguards, it motivated me to get back in the water. I had a friend who’d swim at The Cove and I followed him and started meeting other swimmers.” After he joined the club, Simonelli began to volunteer and got more involved, before becoming president.

Johnston said he joined because “all my friends were members and I’d been swimming here since the mid-90s,” adding that he appreciates “the sea life” found at The Cove. “It’s incredible what you see out there — turtles, sharks, dolphins, fish, it goes on and on. And the conditions change all the time; one day it will be completely flat and a few hours later, a swell will come in, so it’s a different thing every day.”

Member Mark James said a girlfriend was a club member and brought him to The Cove for a swim, and he’s been hooked ever since. “There are no walls in the ocean. There is a freedom to it that you will never find in a pool. (What makes The Cove unique is) there are no boats, there is a corridor for swimmers, and that is huge.”

Zana Kerr, who’s been a member for two years, said she was a member of another swim club, but when a friend introduced her to the La Jolla Cove Swim Club, she never looked back. “When I first started here, I would swim out a little bit and get intimidated and swim back. But knowing I can pair up with another member and go for a swim farther out is great. With a group, I made it to the half-mile buoy for the first time,” she said.

“I used to SCUBA dive but I can’t anymore because of an issue with my ears. I get a similar experience swimming through The Cove because I get to see the sea life, and on a really clear day, you can see so much. It’s always interesting. When I get out there, I can just float and enjoy that peace and quiet — there are no phones, no drama. It’s my peaceful time.”

But around the time that Kerr joined the Club, the sea lion population was growing with sea lions hauling out by the hundreds onto the bluffs and the beach.

Changing times

Simonelli said the sea lion population really started to grow and become “problematic” in 2015. “It pushed some of our swimmers to The Shores or they stopped all together. It killed the community. It was killing the social and recreation opportunities.

“At that time, we didn’t know what the future held and we thought it was an end of an era.” He said there was a decrease in event participation and membership enrollment. “We had some events where the only people there were the volunteers.”

However, swimmers like Kerr still took a chance on The Cove. “The sea lion population didn’t seem that bad when I first joined, but it got worse really quickly. It smelled bad and … last year I moved over to The Shores. I get sinus infections and I heard people were getting sick and, obviously, I didn’t want to get sick, so I moved,” she said.

Similarly, James said he started swimming at The Shores when the sea lion issues were at their worst. “The smell was the biggest change with the introduction of the sea lions. I like a small amount of them around because they are playful, but when there are so many, like there were a few years ago, it was horrible,” he said.

The sea lions have recently begun migrating to other smaller beaches surrounding The Cove and according to the Heal the Bay Beach Report Card for the last 30 days, The Cove water quality is at an A+ (from a D grade in summer 2016).

Simonelli predicts things may be getting back to normal. “There are crowds swimming, the water is warm, so it’s bustling again.”

On the Web: lajollacoveswimclub.com

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