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Point La Jolla docents accused of yelling, grabbing and other ‘incivility’

Sierra Club Seal Society docent Carol Archibald addresses people walking along the bluffs at Point La Jolla.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Although a planned closure of Point La Jolla to keep people and sea lions apart isn’t scheduled to go into effect until May 25, docents with the Sierra Club Seal Society stand guard every day with signs telling people to keep their distance from the pinnipeds.

The methods the volunteers use have been called into question, with beach access advocates accusing them of yelling at those who legally access the bluffs on which the sea lions go to rest. Docents also have been accused of blocking the top of the stairway that is the only recognized access to the bluffs.

“The civil unrest and incivility at Point La Jolla is already getting out of hand and the next closure is not for another few months,” said beach access advocate Kurt Hoffman. “The tourists like to walk on the Point … and take their silly selfies. Docents and part-time rangers cannot and should not be trying to keep folks off public coastal lands [when the closure is not in effect].”

Hoffman told the La Jolla Parks & Beaches board during its Feb. 28 meeting that a Seal Society docent “grabbed a lady by the arm and ... another lady told me she was berated for bringing her child down to the Point.”

The docents “shouldn’t be acting as police or rangers,” Hoffman said.

Swimmer Dennis Downie said docents have yelled at him and asked, “Why do you hate the sea lions?” when he tries to access Point La Jolla.

Bodysurfer Tom Keener said, “Some docents are very civil and polite and some are crazy and aggressive.”

On Saturday, Feb. 26, a group of beach access advocates were among many people who used the stairway to access the bluffs but were met by Seal Society docent and chairwoman Robyn Davidoff at the top of the stairs and docent Carol Archibald at the bottom, asking them to stay back.

Seal Society docent Robyn Davidoff stands at the top of the stairs leading to the Point La Jolla bluffs.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

“Sir, sir!” Archibald called out as the visitors went to the bluffs.

“We’re allowed to be here,” one replied and kept walking.

“We want people to stay back for the safety of the people and for the safety of the sea lions,” Archibald told the La Jolla Light.

Just because the bluffs are open to the public doesn’t mean people should access them, she said. “It’s not something that can be managed — once one person goes down there, everyone goes down there.”

Davidoff added that docents are trained “to be respectful and say, ‘Hey, would you mind watching them from the sidewalk? We have nursing mother [sea lions],’ or ‘As you are heading down there, would you please stay on the upper bluffs?’”

She said the presence of docents at the top and bottom of the stairs is to “make contact with everyone that wants to go down there so they know to keep their distance.”

Davidoff said also she cites a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommendation that people stay 50 yards from pinnipeds, which would place visitors on the sidewalk.

Seal Society docent Carol Archibald stands guard on the Point La Jolla bluffs.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

San Diego city representatives did not respond to the Light’s request for comment on what the docents are allowed to do regarding crowd control.

At the La Jolla Parks & Beaches meeting, Seal Society docents addressed the concerns about their conduct.

When the docents arrived Feb. 26, “some people were petting the sea lions,” Davidoff said. “We don’t want to police the area, we want to educate people about sea lion behavior, pups, mating and that sort of thing. But we are put in a situation where we can’t stand by when people are harassing the sea lions.”

Docent Carol Toye said: “We are there to educate visitors on seals and sea lions. On Point La Jolla, where visitors can approach the sea lions, we speak to people to encourage them to keep safe distances. This is for their safety and the sea lions’ safety. …

“The problem is, on weekends, we have 300 people per hour in the area, and there is little presence from rangers or city officials. It gets so busy that it requires crowd control, which is not what our docents want to do. We know some people object to our approach of keeping people and sea lions at safe distances.”

Docent Ellen Shively said she recognizes that the area is open to the public, “but so are national parks, where there are behavioral regulations to protect the habitat and the animals … as well as visitors. Wild animals can be unpredictable, but human behavior can be modified when educated.”

The city of San Diego recently filed a permit application with the California Coastal Commission for an annual seasonal closure of Point La Jolla. It would be in effect daily from May 25 to Sept. 15, during much of the sea lion pupping season, which is commonly recognized from June 1 to Oct. 31.

City spokesman Tim Graham has said the Point La Jolla closure “is intended to protect both the public and sea lions during pupping season. ... Sea lions, especially mothers who are nursing and feeding their young, can become aggressive and cause bodily injury when they feel threatened as a result of visitors that get too close.”

The proposed closure would be similar to the emergency closure that took place for five weeks last year in that it would include posted signs, a K-rail barrier and a chain to cordon off the beach access stairs at the border of Point La Jolla and La Jolla Cove.

The annual closure area, known to some as “the pork chop” for its shape, would include Point La Jolla and some of the bluffs overlooking adjacent Boomer Beach. ◆