‘Yes, pups can swim’: Expert weighs in on claims of dangers to sea lion pups amid La Jolla debate

Sea lions haul out on Boomer Beach next to Point La Jolla on June 24.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Between a request to close Point La Jolla to help keep humans and sea lions apart and attempts to stop the Fourth of July fireworks display over La Jolla, local animal-rights groups have been sounding an alarm about harm that can come from people’s encounters with pinnipeds.

But some of the statements that groups such as Sierra Club San Diego and the Sierra Club Seal Society are making about sea lion mothers abandoning their pups and about new pups’ difficulty swimming are raising eyebrows and questions from some who have had frequent interactions with sea lions.

The issue

Starting around Memorial Day weekend, Sierra Club volunteer docents have reported harassment of sea lions and their newborns by people getting too close, often to take photos, at Point La Jolla (a rocky area between La Jolla Cove beach and Boomer Beach, where sea lions often go on land to rest).

Some sea lion advocates have said there is a high risk of mothers abandoning their pups if they are separated, and if humans come in contact with a pup, the mother may abandon it.

Citing such potential consequences, Sierra Club San Diego and the Seal Society on June 15 called on Mayor Todd Gloria to declare an emergency and temporarily close Point La Jolla to the public during sea lion pupping season, which runs from June 1 to Oct. 31, while keeping the viewing area from an adjacent wall open.

The mayor’s office told the La Jolla Light that it would instead focus for now on “education measures” such as new signs and increased park ranger presence at Point La Jolla.

San Diego’s budget for fiscal year 2022 includes funding for two more park rangers and a chief ranger.

Regarding the planned Fourth of July fireworks, Sierra Club San Diego chapter director Richard Miller said he has “grave concerns” because the fireworks are to be launched at The Cove within easy earshot of the sea lions.

Miller said sea lion pups have difficulty swimming in their first few months, and “if the sea lions are flushed from The Cove, they will most likely drown and we will have wiped a generation of sea lions from that area.”

While the Sierra Club stands by those claims, others familiar with the area say they have seen sea lion pups swim and mothers reunite with their pups. Letters to the editor from some local residents skeptical about the group’s statements have appeared in the Light.

The questions

So can sea lion pups swim in the first few months of their lives? And is there a low threshold for a mother sea lion to abandon a pup?

The Light reached out for an opinion from the SeaWorld San Diego Rescue Team, which helps ill, injured or orphaned animals in need of expert care, with the goal of rehabilitating and returning them to the wild.

Eric Otjen, head of the team, said there are some short answers and some long answers.

“Yes, pups can swim,” he said. “They are not super coordinated, but they can follow Mom into the water. I’ve seen some pretty little ones getting washed around.”

What about the threshold for a mother to abandon her pup?

“Human touch will not keep a mother from finding their pup,” Otjen said. “We reunited a mother and its pup after they got separated. We brought the pup back to Boomer Beach and it made a noise and the mother came right to it ... even though we were standing right there. They are very good at using smell and the sound of the pup’s cries.”

But, he cautioned, “just because a mom will go back to its pup doesn’t mean [the pup] should be touched.”

What could lead a mother to abandon her pup? One instance is getting flushed off the beach, when “there is always the chance that mothers and pups won’t find each other.”

Such is the concern of some animal-rights groups regarding the July 4 fireworks — that they will cause the animals to scurry into the water and separate from their pups.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, said it would ask the mayor to scrap the La Jolla fireworks display.

“These war-like booms could panic mother sea lions, leading them to abandon their newborn pups,” PETA Vice President Colleen O’Brien said in a statement. She suggested a drone display, light show “or another option that respects vulnerable wildlife.”

Gloria’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of the Animal Protection and Rescue League argues that the planned fireworks constitute harassment and a violation of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

However, Deborah Marengo, director of the La Jolla Community Fireworks Foundation, said organizers are proceeding with the display.

Whether getting too close to a sea lion counts as harassment is a “sticky” issue, Otjen said.

“All the marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The MMPA rules state for pinnipeds, we should stay 50 yards away,” he said. “But as soon as you are on the walkway [next to Point La Jolla], you are closer than 50 yards. The people that go down there for selfies get pretty close, and that goes against MMPA.”

However, harassment involves modifying a sea lion’s behavior, he said.

“If you get close to a sea lion and it doesn’t change its behavior, have you violated the MMPA?” he said. “It’s complicated. Some say if they make eye contact and watch you as you move, that counts as modifying the behavior.”

“We know there are those who feel the beach is for the animals or for the people,” Otjen said. “We can appreciate both because the beaches are great for both.”

In response to Otjen’s comments, Miller said “there have been other instances where people who deal with marine mammals don’t agree. ... Pups could swim earlier in their lives, but generally it takes a long time. Sea lions cannot swim right after birth, we know that for sure. Some people disagree with what we believe, so there is controversy even in the scientific community, just like there is with climate change.” ◆