On a recent weekday morning, a man walked past the La Jolla Cove Bridge Club with his green tank top pulled up around his nose. It’s a popular look around La Jolla Cove during warmer months.
“Is there a dead seal around here?” the man asked the Light. “I’m from Canada and I know what a dead seal smells like, and this is it.”
The famously maligned and debated “Cove Stench” is back. This year, said City spokesperson Tim Graham, “the smell appears to be emanating from Alligator Point, where the sea lions have been gathering and the City doesn’t spray (its odor-eating solution).” (Alligator Point, also called Alligator Head, is the triangular formation of rocks that juts out into the sea below and to the west of the Bridge Club.)
Initially, the bluffs below and to the south of the Cave Store were The Cove’s only odiferous area, owing to an increase in droppings from birds who settled onto the bluffs once humans were prohibited from venturing there. However, sea lions have since settled onto Alligator Point, adding to the fecal fray with a diet consisting of smelly fish.
Since 2013, the City of San Diego Department of Parks & Recreation has fought the funk in its original location, using a foam solution of seven different guano-eating bacteria sprayed by workers from Blue Eagle Distribution, who lower themselves by rope onto the bluffs.
“They typically schedule three sprayings per month, but that can change depending on weather and surf conditions,” Graham said. “They try to (work) out next month’s schedule at the end of the current month, when they have more weather and surf information to work with.”
Biologists say the odor is an unfortunate consequence of a big positive: Environmental protections put in place over the past few decades have brought back the cormorants and brown pelicans that nearly went extinct in the 1970s due to the pesticide DDT, as well as the seals and sea lions which, although never endangered, were depleted in number.
“In the ‘70s, there was a big push for environmental protection, and we’re seeing a big response to that,” said Jim Milbury, spokesperson for NOAA Fisheries. “The Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act did a phenomenal job of helping animals recover in the environment, and this smell is a bit of a side effect from the success we’ve seen.” (The brown pelican was removed from the federal endangered list in 2010.)
A waste of reservations
Many tourists and restaurant owners think the protections have gone too far, however, by allowing animals to ruin the area for people.
“I was hangry until I smelled this,” said Cristiane Saade, a tourist from Sao Paolo, Brazil. “Now I’m not anymore.”
Filippo Piccini co-owned Acquavite Ristorante, 1298 Prospect St., from 2016 until a lack of business forced its closure earlier this year. He said Saade’s reaction was common among his customers, about 20 percent of whom could not even finish their meals during the summer.
“Maybe it was part of why we closed, I can’t say,” Piccini said of the Cove stench. “I can’t tell you how many people avoided coming in because of it.”
One walkout is fixed in Piccini’s memory. A tourist who fell in love with Acquavite’s food in the winter and view booked a reservation for 12 the following summer. According to Piccini, as the party exited, “the gentleman told me the smell was like — well, actually, you probably can’t print what he said.” (Piccini is correct.)
The City is limited in how much solution it can spray, and power-washing the cliffs is prohibited. (Even using plain water would cause a problem, since the high concentration of guano this would dilute would be considered polluting.) If any runoff from the solution entered the ocean, it could result in massive fines, in addition to a lengthy, expensive and long-shot permitting process to restart the process. (Regulations from several government agencies overlap in The Cove, one of 34 state-protected Areas of Special Biological Significance.)
There are additional complications with spraying this year, too, Graham said.
“There are more birds than usual in the cliff areas that we cannot access and spray, so there is definitely more of this odor that has an ammoniacal smell,” he said. “And the birds are starting to nest so our spray area will likely be reduced once the birds pair up.”
Dropping in intensity
George Hauer, owner of George’s at the Cove, 1250 Prospect St., is a veteran of the guano wars. He was the founding president of Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement, which in 2013 sued the City for damages caused by the Cove Stench (including a reduction in tourism and nearby property values). The City was responsible, the suit claimed, because its decision to construct fences along the bluffs to restrict human access allowed sea lion and bird populations to grow unchecked. (In 2017, a California appellate court quashed the lawsuit, ruling that favorable conditions for the animals, not the City’s fences, were responsible.)
Hauer said the stench this year, so far, is nowhere as bad as it was five or six years ago.“It is not an ideal situation, having the smell of s*** wafting through your restaurant when you’re serving food,” Hauer said. “It’s ridiculous to me that we allow it to go on, but it isn’t worse than it was at its peak. It was really bad back then.”
After being informed where the odor emanated from, the Canadian tourist said he didn’t want to leave Light readers with the wrong impression. He’s not in favor of removing the sea lions, birds or any other wildlife from La Jolla Cove — even if it were possible in light of their myriad protections.
“They’re the reason I came here,” he said. “I think they should have the same rights to this area as people have. It’s just that, can’t they figure out how to clean up their poop better?”