Sea lions stay at La Jolla’s Boomer Beach despite people-free Cove

Two sea lions in the waters off La Jolla Cove beach bark and play on July 31.
Two sea lions in the waters off La Jolla Cove beach.

It’s been a month since La Jolla’s parks and beaches were closed to the public in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, part of a citywide edict that went into effect March 23. With lifeguards reporting that citizens have largely honored the new rule (areas such as La Jolla Cove are devoid of human presence), how are the sea lions that haul out there responding?

With people staying home, lifeguards report the seal lions are actually staying put, too, resting on the Boomer Beach rocks, rather than overtaking adjacent areas.

In the past, the sea lions would adjust where they haul out (leave the water to rest) to avoid human disturbances — from the bluffs along Coast Boulevard in 2013, to the beach itself in 2016, and most recently onto Boomer Beach.

San Diego Marine Safety Lieutenant Maureen Hodges explained: “From what I’ve seen at The Cove, my crews and I haven’t noticed anything different during daylight hours. There are some sea lions on the beach, but there are always a few, even when the beach is packed with people. We haven’t noticed anything we would describe as noticeably different from before the closure went into effect.”

The rangers who patrol Scripps Park have not made any sea lion observations, said City spokesperson Tim Graham. “More often than not, they’ve been trying to keep the public from entering shoreline parks in compliance with the order to stay off the beach,” he told the Light. “They often have to replace or restore signs and barricades that are removed or vandalized, but their primary role is to keep the public out of the parks.”

There are two trains of thought on why the sea lions haven’t moved.

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration research biologist Mark Lowry, who monitors pinniped populations, previously told the Light: “It’s common behavior for sea lions to move to avoid disturbance. I’ve seen this happen at other places in the past, such as the Channel Islands.”

So, he suggests, La Jolla’s sea lions might move with more time: “I think they just don’t react that quickly ... give them a few more months and they might move around. Just have to wait and see.”

Marine mammal expert Doyle Hanan, author of the City-contracted 2015 report on La Jolla Cove’s sea lions, said harassment from people could cause them to move, but these appear to be a “resident group of sea lions in La Jolla” as well as “those passing through on their way to offshore islands for pupping and breeding.”

Hanan said with availability of food and no harassment, the sea lions might be here for a while. “Sea lions and harbor seals tend to haul out on familiar beaches where they seem to be safe or where they see other animals congregating. No one knows why they choose certain beaches, but they do abandon places where they are harassed. Access to prey where they haul out could make one beach more attractive than another ... the market squid available in La Jolla canyon would be an example.”

Changing of the guard

With sea lions being the primary beach-goers these days, Hodges said lifeguards’ duties have “shifted,” but they are “still 100 percent focused on being rescue-ready making water observation at our towers. Someone can decide they are not going to follow the stay-at-home order and find themselves in trouble on the cliffs, on the beach or in the water. But a new component of our job is letting people know what is not available to them. There is a stay-at-home order in effect, and we are asking people to abide by that.”