Warning: It’s “swim at your own risk” at La Jolla Cove due to unsafe bacteria levels in the water


“Look what’s happened at our beautiful La Jolla Cove! When I arrived there for a swim April 28, I found a warning sign and trails of sea lion excrement.” — Patty Pastore

What’s going on? Chief lifeguard Ed Harris told La Jolla Light that the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health regularly tests the water at The Cove for harmful bacterial levels, and that such levels have been consistently high enough lately to merit posting an advisory sign for the foreseeable future.

Confirming the news, San Diego County communications officer Alex Bell said there is weekly, year-round testing at the Cove and that an “uncommon number” of high-bacteria results have appeared there since April. The new water quality advisory will be in effect until the bacteria levels decrease, she said.

In his observation of the area, Harris said, “When my contact at the Health Department tested the water a week ago, he said if the bacteria levels are high enough during a subsequent test, the area would be considered ‘perpetually contaminated’ and the county won’t test it any more. It would just post the warning sign and leave it up. Right now, there is reason to believe there are high levels of bacteria there (attributable to sea lion waste).”

Cove-goers still have the choice of whether to go swimming, but it is at their own risk. In addition to the water, Harris cautioned about bacteria-laden waste in the sand.

“The bacteria is working its way into the sand, where people visit and walk barefoot and kids play, so it’s like sending your kids to play in a litterbox,” Harris said, “And it will get worse because we have the big tides in the winter and rain, but we don’t have them in the summer as things heat up. So the litterbox won’t be changed until next winter.”

Because of their diet of oily fish, sea lion waste is often “runny and oily” and due to their size, (males can weigh 770 pounds) their excrement is “quite large,” Harris said.

Adrianna Issakov, owner of La Jolla Swim and Sport, said she swims at The Cove almost every day and the sign has not deterred her swims, partly because of its lack of information.

“Based on what is on those signs and where they are placed, it’s hard to make a smart decision as to whether to go in,” she said. “The signs are not placed where they are clearly visible. In fact, on my last swim, I didn’t see the sign when I went in, but I did see it on my way out. Plus, there is not enough information on there, is the advisory due to rain, or sea lion waste, or what?”

Community activist Bill Robbins, who frequents The Cove, said he and other swimmers are “upset” by the advisory, and believe the situation is only going to get worse.

“We had over 100 sea lions on the beach one night not too long ago, so some swimmers are not going to The Cove anymore, and they’re going to places like The Shores, instead,” he said. While his own Cove swims have not been deterred by the health advisory, Robbins said he goes in with “a mask and snorkel.”

He added, “This is not a good sign of what’s happening in that area. This is what happened at Children’s Pool (before it was closed completely).”

One swimmer who has been deterred from swimming in The Cove waters is La Jolla Cove Swim Club President Dan Simonelli. “It’s one thing to go down there after a rain (when there is germy runoff) and go swimming a little further from the coastline … but coming in and out — and if it’s continually contaminated — that is a real deterrent,” he said.

The threat of bacterial contact is that much worse for visitors, Simonelli said, because they don’t know what they’re coming into contact with. “A lot of swimmers who frequent The Cove know what (sea lion waste) looks like and we look for those dark streaks and avoid them. But most visitors don’t know what to look for, and they step in it barefooted,” he said.

Arguing there can be no other culprits than the sea lions that haul out there to blame for the increased bacteria levels at The Cove, Simonelli added, “It’s pretty obvious ... I don’t know how anyone could argue otherwise.”

Ashley Mackin

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