Advocates try to discourage beach-goers from getting too close to La Jolla sea lions and their pups
Spectators who approach the animals can disrupt their normal behavior and possibly separate mothers and pups, and the animals may charge or bite people if they feel threatened, experts say.
A pair of sea lion pups splashed and played at Point La Jolla last week, chasing each other in circles through a sheltered pool while other pups lounged on the beach or sheltered in a crevice between rocks.
Surrounding them was a crowd of visitors, cellphones in hand, some within arm’s reach of the baby marine mammals.
The spur of land between La Jolla Cove and Boomer Beach is one of a handful of sea lion rookeries, or birthing beaches, on mainland California, making it a rare place to view the newborn pups with their mothers. But throngs of visitors, captivated by the baby sea lions, may be placing both themselves and the animals at risk, wildlife advocates say.
Spectators who approach the animals can cause them to retreat into the sea, disrupting their normal behavior and possibly separating mothers and pups, said Robyn Davidoff, a docent with the Sierra Club Seal Society of San Diego, a volunteer group dedicated to preserving the region’s harbor seals and sea lions.
Touching the young sea lions can interfere with the scent recognition that is key to mother-baby bonding and even cause mothers to abandon their young, experts say. The animals also may charge people, or bite defensively if they feel threatened or harassed.
“People see someone taking selfies and they think it’s OK to get that close,” Davidoff said. “Then they get chased by a sea lion or nipped at.”
The Seal Society is asking the city to discourage that kind of close contact through public information about sea lion behavior and safe viewing guidelines. It has presented to the City Council Environment Committee and met with Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, who chairs that panel. The group also is communicating with Councilwoman Barbara Bry, whose district includes La Jolla.
Campbell’s office could not be reached for comment. Bry declined to comment, though one of her representatives said Bry planned to tour the site over the weekend.
“We’re working with park and recreation rangers to get improved signage to raise awareness for people about sea lions,” Davidoff said. “We talk to people at the beach, educate them about sea lion breeding and ask them to give some space and step back. We really try to take an educational approach.”
City park rangers have worked to increase public awareness of the increasing number of sea lions in La Jolla, according to Timothy Graham, a public information officer for the city of San Diego. The city has placed educational signs at the areas surrounding La Jolla Cove, sprayed with enzyme treatment to reduce odor and placed a gate at the bottom of the beach access stairs to prevent sea lions from climbing up to the urban area, he said. It also opened an interpretive table staffed by interns, but that was curtailed at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and the Parks and Recreation Department is developing plans to reopen it.
Davidoff said, however, that those steps aren’t enough and that some of the measures haven’t been implemented effectively. She said she and other volunteers rarely see rangers at the site and that rangers haven’t shown up to intervene when docents have called them about problems. The interpretive tent, even when open, is too far from the site, and the interns working there lacked the training and experience to manage public behavior toward the animals, Davidoff said.
The Seal Society is asking the city to post rangers at the site daily, or at least all day on weekends, to enforce safe viewing guidelines and wants the city to set viewing distances that visitors should maintain — at least 50 feet, the limit set for the nearby Children’s Pool. Advocates would like those guidelines posted prominently along the wall above La Jolla Point and Boomer Beach and on the rocks below. And they’re asking the city to close the beach access stairs to the site during pupping season, between June 1 and Oct. 1.
Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plan to post additional signs at the site and conduct a public education campaign to help visitors safely view the animals, spokesman Michael Milstein said.
On an afternoon last week, dozens of visitors shared the beach with the sea lions, including groups of pups that waited for their mothers to return from fishing expeditions. Davidoff approached some of the viewers, asking if they had questions and explaining the pupping process and behavior.
“Why are they on the land?” asked Amber King, who was visiting the site from Huntington Beach with her husband, Connor.
Baby sea lions nurse for six months, so the mothers must eat enough to feed both of them, but in the meantime, their pups remain unguarded on the beach, Davidoff said.
“This is the playpen,” King said. “That’s amazing. This is better than SeaWorld.”
When the mothers return, they bark for their pups, and the youngsters return the call until they meet and greet one another by scent. That’s why it’s important to refrain from touching them, Davidoff said. Seeing one man sitting on a rock next to a group of pups covered in sand, she asked him to keep his distance from the animals.
“If you touch it, the mom might not feed it anymore,” she said.
“Thank you lady,” said the man, Diego Angulo, as he backed away from the animals.
Most of the beach-goers seemed interested in the information and receptive to the request to stay clear of the animals, though few backed up as far as the 50-foot guideline the Seal Society hopes to see enforced.
This kind of close interaction between the public and pupping sea lions is fairly recent and rare, said Sharon Melin, wildlife research biologist with NOAA and lead of the California Current sea lion program. Historically, sea lions didn’t have their young on the mainland but instead gave birth on islands where they were safe from land predators.
More recently, some small rookeries began to appear on the California mainland, Melin said, but most of those are small pockets of animals at inaccessible beaches on the Central Coast.
“At [La Jolla], a situation ... where they’re pupping in a very public place, where people are interacting with them on a regular basis, we don’t see any other places like that,” she said.
Sea lion populations have been up and down over the past few decades. For much of the past century, their numbers declined as the animals were trapped accidentally in fish nets, shot by people fishing and suffered low birth rates because of DDT in their blubber. Their population was just shy of 89,000 in 1975, three years after the Marine Mammal Protection Act took effect, but by 2012, their numbers rose to more than 300,000.
A year later, however, young, starving sea lions began arriving on beaches throughout California in mass stranding events. Scientists later determined that those were due to changes in the prey base that left the mothers malnourished and unable to feed their pups. The population is now estimated at 230,000 to 250,000, Melin said.
The animals are adaptable and adjust to the presence of people, so the colony at La Jolla should be fairly stable as long as people give them their space, she said.
That protects people as well as the pups, she said. Sea lions are curious about people but can occasionally be aggressive. Some divers or snorkelers have been bitten while swimming with sea lions, she said. ◆
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