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Guest commentary: Keep sea lions, their pups and people safe at La Jolla’s rookery

Beach-goers view and photograph sea lions and their pups in La Jolla during pupping season last August.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The La Jolla sea lions are having their babies! Pupping season begins in June and ends in October, with most pups born in June and July.

Last year there were 54 births. Mating occurs after birthing during August and September. The pups are adorable, which brings throngs of people to see them — as many as 300 visitors an hour. View them from the sidewalk and they will enchant you.

The La Jolla sea lion rookery is the only one on the mainland California coast. In order to safely view and enjoy this rare event, you need to be aware of certain precautions during pupping season.

Newborn sea lion pups are vulnerable. Just like humans, the relationship between mother and pup is one of the most vital factors of survival. Pups are born on land, weighing only 16 pounds. After birth, bonding requires eight weeks of mom-pup togetherness. If visitors separate moms and pups by taking close-up photos, blocking their path or touching the pups, the pups may be abandoned and starve.

Pups cannot swim well until they are 4 months old. This becomes a problem during high tides if viewers accidentally surround them and don’t allow the pups a path to dry land.

In addition, pups are often left alone on the beach or rocks in groups called a nursery while their moms go out to fish. This is an important time for them to sleep and play.

Sea lion pups are completely dependent on their moms for the first six months. Mothers nurse their pups for six to 12 months, as pups can’t forage for themselves until they are 8 months old. They need to nurse on the beach or rocks with no disturbances. This means you can view pups nursing from their attentive mothers and playing with one another on the beach for many months, making it a most delightful educational and entertaining experience!

Although official NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] guidelines recommend a minimum distance of 50 yards, adapting to the size of the beach, we recommend a safe viewing distance of 50 feet. It is important to remember they are wild animals and can display defensive behavior when afraid or disturbed.

Sea lions are protected by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act as well as California state law and the San Diego municipal code, making harassment of marine mammals illegal. Harassment includes touching, taking selfies, throwing rocks or sand at them and picking up pups — anything that changes or disturbs their behavior. If you witness harassment, please report it to the NOAA hotline at (800) 853-1964.

During pupping season, mother sea lions are understandably very protective of their pups. If visitors get too close or if people touch their pups, they may try to protect them by barking, chasing or, rarely, even biting. Male sea lions weighing as much as one ton protect the rookery. If harassed, they may bite and chase visitors away from the rookery.

Keeping a safe distance protects people and sea lions and enables visitors to enjoy viewing the animals without disturbing them. Let’s just enjoy them playing on the land and in the water by following these safe viewing guidelines, in addition to those above:

• Use the zoom feature on your camera.

• Watch quietly, keeping your voice low.

• Move slowly so as not to scare the sea lions.

• Do not feed sea lions.

• Be respectful of sea lions and their habitat.

Sierra Club Seal Society docents will be covering the rookery during pupping season. We are available to give you more information about these amazing animals and make your visit enjoyable and educational. We wear distinctive blue T-shirts and are approachable to all visitors.

Sea lions are well-known for their intelligence, playfulness and noisy barking, which contributes to their popularity. La Jolla’s sea lion rookery is one of the most popular attractions in San Diego. The sea lions, as well as the harbor seals at Casa Beach (Children’s Pool beach) contribute to making La Jolla the unique jewel that attracts visitors far and wide.

We are privileged to be able to observe these wild animals in their natural habitat. It is an absolute joy to view these beautiful marine mammals, especially during pupping season. Please protect this treasured place!

Carol Archibald is a Sierra Club Seal Society docent.