1 seal rescue, 4 deaths to date in La Jolla during 2017 pupping season

Visitors can be seen harassing harbor seals recently at South Casa Beach in La Jolla.

A harbor seal mother and her pup were being harassed by beach-goers March 22 at South Casa Beach. That scene repeats daily at the La Jolla enclave, only a few feet away from Children’s Pool, where the seals (by City law) have the shore to themselves during pupping season (Dec. 15 to May 15).

Seal Society of San Diego volunteer Ellen Shively told La Jolla Light that during the process of getting the Children’s Pool beach closure, they thought that would be enough space for the seals. “But what’s happened is some of the seals were born on South Casa Beach, so when they grow up and have their own first seal pup, they go back to the place where they were born.”

In South Casa Beach, the unprotected seals are constantly harassed by visitors. Justin Viezbicke, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stranding coordinator, said the federal agency requests that people show some “courtesy” to the animals. “Taking selfies with the seals can result in problems, so we’re asking people to be more respectful and not get too close.”

Since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted in 1972, all marine mammals are protected by federal law, regardless of where they haul out. However, NOAA has no power of enforcement.

This year, no animals have been considered abandoned at South Casa Beach, but five pups were found starving at the nearby Children’s Pool. When one of these cases arises, NOAA coordinates with the San Diego County designated agent for marine mammal rescues, SeaWorld Rescue.

“For Children’s Pool, we’ve set up a case-by-case authorization, and it depends on a number of factors,” Viezbicke said. “We need a minimum 48-hour watch to determine if the pup is really abandoned. We don’t want to rush down there and take a pup from the beach if the mother is still there … In particular, on that beach, we don’t want to go down there and cause any disturbance because there’s potential for animals to get trampled or mothers and pups to be separated.”

SeaWorld lead rescue coordinator Jody Westberg told the Light, “If it’s decided there’s potential that a pup has been abandoned, the next thing we’re going to do is look at the entire colony or rookery of animals.” She said SeaWorld would never put the entire Children’s Pool colony at risk to save one animal. She explained, “These animals don’t understand that we’re here to help them, so the first thing they’re going to do is either fight or flight, and with harbor seals, the majority of the time it’s flight. They’re going to rush to the water, putting other animals at risk.”

Westberg confirmed there was one harbor seal pup rescued this pupping season from Children’s Pool. “SeaWorld did get permission from NOAA to take this pup and move it back onto the beach in hopes that it would reunite with its mother. Unfortunately, that mother and pup did not reunite, and that pup found its way into a rocky crevice. Now, this was an area in which SeaWorld found we could be very stealth and try to rescue the pup without disrupting the rest of the animals,” she said, adding that the pup is now developing in one of SeaWorld’s rescue facilities and will be released into the wild when appropriate.

Many visitors mistake a starving pup for one that’s being weaned, Westberg explained. “The mothers will wean them at 4-6 weeks of age. What that means is we’re going to see these pups with this amazing, robust fat layer, start losing weight, and they will continue to vocalize for their mother. But this process is natural, and eventually, they’re going to learn how to (find food and eat) on their own and they’re going to gain all that weight back.”

To report a seal in distress: Call the SeaWorld Animal Rescue Hotline at (800) 541-SEAL.