Chronology of La Jolla Cove and sea lions: A look at the past 10 years of people and pinnipeds

Lifeguards watch over La Jolla Cove from a tower on the edge of Scripps Park.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

From its onset, the conflict between humans and sea lions around La Jolla Cove has made headlines, from the famous “Cove stench” to a recent viral video. With summer in full swing, the La Jolla Light presents this 10-year recap of all the goings-on involving people and pinnipeds at the beloved La Jolla landmark.


  • The “La Jolla Cove stench” started to become a regular occurrence, with many blaming the sea lions that haul out and birds that defecate on the rocks to the northeast of The Cove. “It’s stinky,” restaurateur George Hauer, owner of George’s at the Cove, said at the time. “It is so prominent … it’s not something you can ignore.”
  • As a possible solution, the city of San Diego considered using a microbial agent to clean the rocks and reduce the smell.
  • By summer, organizations such as the La Jolla Village Merchants Association pleaded with the city to act to reduce the smell.
  • By fall, then-City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner met with representatives of the San Diego Parks & Recreation Department, California Coastal Commission, California Regional Water Quality Control Board and private organizations in an effort to find a solution. However, the agencies made it clear there were no overnight solutions and no options to address the odor that would not require permits or larger review. At issue was whether any treatment would damage the cliffs or violate a ban on discharging any substance into the ocean beneath the cliffs, which is a protected Area of Special Biological Significance.


  • Acting on the thought that droppings from cormorants and other seabirds that nest on the bluffs were the source of the smell, the city (with a push from then-Mayor Bob Filner) was able to bypass state and federal bureaucracy and begin cleansing bird guano from Cove cliffs with a microbial agent. The cleansing largely eradicated the smell during the summer.
  • In the fall, after two successful cleansing treatments, the Cove stench returned. City officials cited sea lions as the culprits.
  • By winter, a lawsuit had been filed by La Jolla business owners and residents arguing that the city had the responsibility to remove the excrement.
  • In response to pressure from residents and business owners, the city installed a gate in the fence above La Jolla Cove to make it easier for people to walk onto the bluffs. La Jollans urged city officials to re-establish human access to the cliffs as a deterrent to the sea lions and cormorants that gather there and defecate on the rocks.


  • Lifeguards were given authority to lock the Cove gate during high surf to keep people off the bluffs.


  • The La Jolla Community Planning Association announced that one of the nine projects it would like the city to fund in 2015-16 was monthly bluff-cleaning treatments to reduce the odor at The Cove.
  • In the early part of the year, sea lions moved to the beach at La Jolla Cove, unnerving swimmers and divers. The La Jolla Town Council presented a forum during its April meeting to explore sea lion biology, habits, negative interaction with humans and possible water contamination. The Town Council formed a subcommittee to meet with local leaders in hopes of finding a way to have the sea lions removed.
  • San Diego hired pinniped expert Doyle Hanan to evaluate and propose a solution to the sea lion stench at La Jolla Cove. The city reserved more than $24,000 to contract with Doyle Hanan & Associates to “study and identify potential opportunities for changing the behavior or haul-out conditions of the sea lion colony now expanding along the La Jolla coastline” and file a report with the city.
  • In March, a San Diego County Superior Court judge rejected the claim that the city was liable for the offensive odors at La Jolla Cove.
Sea lions haul out on Boomer Beach next to Point La Jolla.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)


  • After months of research, the La Jolla Town Council’s Coastal Committee in January announced its proposal for dealing with the sea lions: Install stainless-steel cables across key access points on the lower portion of the bluffs next to La Jolla Cove (which the sea lions use to climb to upper levels) and string rotating plastic cylinders across the cables so the animals can’t climb to the larger, flatter area. The intent was to prevent the sea lions from gaining traction, thereby making the area unappealing to them.
  • In June, Doyle Hanan released what became known as the “Hanan Report.” It noted 10 locations where sea lions haul out, including the bluffs under Coast Boulevard and the La Jolla Cove beach, and cited problems that could come from people getting too close to the animals. The study concluded, in part, “Continual harassment of California sea lions off haul-out areas may temporarily reduce California sea lion presence and may temporarily reduce their interactions in the La Jolla Cove area, but they are not likely to abandon the area.”
  • Following the release of the report, the La Jolla Town Council held its second “Crisis at the Cove” forum to generate ideas for dispersing the sea lions. Suggestions ranged from using sprinklers and squirt guns to creating a task force.
  • In the fall, five lifeguards associated with The Cove reported staph-like skin infections after being in the water there. San Diego County health authorities posted bacteria advisories for the waters off La Jolla Cove.


  • In the spring, the San Diego city attorney’s office issued a memo indicating the city could not transfer its authority to remove or deter sea lions to a nonprofit organization such as the La Jolla Town Council or the La Jolla Parks & Beaches group.
  • Sea lions were observed hauling out at Boomer Beach south of The Cove beach and on the bluffs at Point La Jolla.
  • Signs went up in Scripps Park above The Cove beach area and near Boomer Beach with facts about seals and sea lions, including ways to tell them apart, and urging visitors to stay a safe distance from them.
  • A long-awaited Marine Coastal Management Plan, intended to “provide guidance for the city to manage seals and sea lions and also various seabirds roosting and nesting in the La Jolla area,” was submitted to the San Diego Parks & Recreation Department. Among its findings, the report listed “action items” including installing gates and monitoring the area.
People gather at Point La Jolla in December with sea lions nearby.
(Courtesy of Ben Gish)


  • In January, gates were installed at La Jolla Cove to keep sea lions from climbing the stairs to the lifeguard station observation deck, where they reportedly had gone to rest and sometimes urinate and defecate, prompting worry that they could impede lifeguards from carrying out their duties.
  • In the fall, the city Parks & Recreation Department established an information tent staffed with interns overlooking La Jolla Cove to teach visitors about the wildlife below.


  • The “Cove stench” returned. The city reported the smell was from the waste of birds and sea lions and was emanating from Alligator Point north of The Cove, where sea lions gather. The smell was combated with a microbial agent the city applied three times monthly.
  • With sea lions resting in areas such as Point La Jolla and Boomer Beach, animal-rights groups encouraged beach-goers to keep their distance from the animals.


  • During the shutdown of area parks and beaches because of the COVID-19 pandemic, lifeguards reported that the sea lions were staying put at Point La Jolla rather than overtaking adjacent areas.


A sign at Point La Jolla directs people away from the bluffs in August during a five-week emergency closure.
A sign along the concrete wall that lines Point La Jolla directs people away from the bluffs in August during a five-week emergency closure to keep humans and sea lions apart.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

  • In June, City Councilman Joe LaCava and Parks & Recreation Department Director Andy Field, joined by other local leaders, announced that signs would go up around Point La Jolla and La Jolla Cove to encourage “responsible tourism” and keeping a safe distance from the sea lions. The action came after reports of people bothering, and in a few cases harming, sea lions and pups.
  • At the August La Jolla Community Planning Association meeting, LaCava said the public education campaign and sign program were “not particularly effective” and that the city had decided to take “more assertive steps.”
  • On Aug. 11, the city closed the Point La Jolla area to the public on an emergency basis for five weeks. “The closure is intended to protect both the public and sea lions during pupping season, a sensitive period of time when sea lions are born and learn to swim,” city spokesman Tim Graham said at the time. “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.”


  • In April, the California Coastal Commission approved a permit calling for the city to close Point La Jolla and most of Boomer Beach during the annual sea lion pupping season from May 1 to Oct. 31 by using signs, a chain across the wooden access stairway and two K-rail barriers on the western end of the closure area. The permit is in effect for at least seven years.
  • In July, a video posted to social media app TikTok showed two sea lions charging down the beach at The Cove as people ran and jumped out of the way. It quickly garnered millions of views. The video sparked debate about whether the sea lions were chasing the humans. SeaWorld San Diego rescue team leader Eric Otjen said the video showed two male sea lions likely sparring over females, which is normal sea lion behavior. ◆