City considers sea lion behaviorist to nix La Jolla Cove odor

Meanwhile, visitors line up for sea lion ‘selfies’

A year after the city installed a gate in the fence above La Jolla Cove — to allow human access to the bluffs as a deterrent to sea lions and birds gathering and depositing their smelly excrement there — the sea lions appear to have become acclimated to humans.

Last week, visitors could be seen helping each other down the bluff trail to take “selfies” just feet from the seemingly docile marine mammals — a proximity prohibited under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (though rarely enforced).

At the time the gate was installed, it was believed the presence of humans would force the sea lions off the bluffs, thus eradicating the stench from their excrement and urine. The gate was positioned at the insistence of a group of Village business owners and residents who remember a time when there was no fence and people freely roamed the bluffs, sans the pungent odor of coastal wildlife.

In June 2013, the city began spraying the bluffs with a microbial foam that digests the bird guano — then believed to be the sole source of the stench. However, as the smell began to return in the fall of 2013, the city determined the source also included sea lion waste — pungent from the animals’ diet of anchovies and other oily fish.

In 2014, the city continued the sprayings, completing five at a total cost of $7,000 (compared to an initial cost of $100,000 to remove years of sun-baked bird waste). City Park & Recreation District Manager Dan Daneri said further applications have been budgeted and will be made on an “as-needed basis.” (La Jolla Village Merchants Association board President Claude-Anthony Marengo said during a recent meeting with San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the mayor pledged to have the bluffs sprayed monthly).

The city said the presence of people on the bluffs last year significantly deterred the bird population (thus decreasing bird waste). However, according to Daneri, although lifeguards recognized a temporary reduction in sea lions on the bluff when the gate was initially installed, “as time passed, the presence of sea lions appeared to rise to pre-gate levels and remain relatively constant.

“Sea lions appear to have become more comfortable around people and more tolerant of their presence,” Daneri said. “The number of sea lions seems to be rising slightly and they seem to access areas of Cove beach more than they did in the past.”

In monitoring the situation, Daneri said lifeguards and Park and Rec employees “experienced a reduction in the smell overall, but recognize that the smell still exists and can be strong at times.

“The degree of odor changes and we believe it is directly impacted by the amount of animal use of the bluffs, air temperature and the wind direction and speed. Rain, high surf and high tides have proven to reduce the amount of animal waste on the bluff, consequently reducing the odor. After spraying treatments were completed, lifeguards experienced a reduction in odor for approximately one to two weeks or longer, depending on weather conditions,” Daneri said, via e-mail. (However, the consultant the city contracts with to apply the microbial foam previously told La Jolla Light the treatment has a very limited effect on sea lion waste.)

Citizens’ suit over Cove smell

A lawsuit demanding the City of San Diego eliminate the sickening stench altogether is set for trial May 1 — that is, unless city officials and the group who filed the suit can reach an agreement before then.

In December of 2013, Village business owners and residents organized as the Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement sued the city to address the problem.

Restaurateur George Hauer, founding president of Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement and owner of George’s at the Cove restaurant — one of the eateries affected by the appetite suppressing waft — said that though sea lions appear to be hugging the portion of the bluffs closest to the edge during the day, at night he has seen as many as five sea lions atop the bluff, seemingly to escape the ocean surge.

“What you find is that they go up there at night and they (defecate),” Hauer said.

“Then, during the day, they go back down to the water again. So, all the waste is accumulating and it reeks to high heaven up there. The smell has not been solved.”

Hauer called the microbial foam spraying, “a total waste of money,” saying “the spraying probably helped with the birds, but when you’ve got 30 or 40 or 50 sea lions crapping up on the cliffs at night, the spraying is negated within a day or two.”

Plan B?

Gerry Braun, a spokesperson for the San Diego City Attorney’s Office, said the city is set to file a motion with the court to have the lawsuit dismissed later this month.

However, in the meantime, the city attorney’s office is considering a contract with Precision Behavior, a company recommended by La Jolla Shores attorney Norm Blumenthal, who filed the stench suit. Precision Behavior claims its marine mammal specialists can work with the sea lions to modify their behavior and coax them off the bluffs.

Braun said if the contract is approved, he believes the group will likely drop its lawsuit.

Although a representative with the company said he couldn’t discuss the pending contract, speaking with the Light last year, Precision Behavior’s David Butcher, a former corporate vice-president of animal behavior for SeaWorld, said the then $30,000 proposal involved use of operant (or instrumental) conditioning techniques — a method of learning that involves rewards and punishment for behavior.

“I’m going to change the way the sea lions look at their world in a very positive way,” Butcher previously told the Light. “I’m going to teach them that it’s preferable for them to live, rest or sleep on other rocks than the ones that they’ve chosen” (read the full story at

Doyle Hanan, president of Hanan and Associates, a marine and environmental consulting services company the city has contracted to monitor harbor seals at the La Jolla Children’s Pool (a.k.a. Casa Beach), said sea lions are “about as intelligent as a dog, so you would expect them to adapt” to humans.

Although he said he is not familiar with Precision Behavior’s sea lion behavior modification methods, a variety of agencies and companies, such as his own, provide sea lion deterring solutions. Such methods, approved under a provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, include harassing seals with noise, water jets and cattle prods, and use of fences.

However, Hanan cautioned, “almost everything works at first, but sea lions habituate rapidly. It’s hard to deter them from going where they want to go.”

Sturdy, PVC pipe coated chain-link fencing has worked to prevent the seals from gaining access to bluffs and docks in other coastal California areas, although when bashed against repeatedly by an up to 800-pound male sea lion, the fencing may bend and break, Hanan noted, especially when one is seeking food or a safe place to slumber.

In San Diego, sea lions are constantly breaking into large boxes of sardines and anchovies aboard bait barges off the coast of Point Loma, Hanan said.

Meanwhile … at Children’s Pool

Hanan said his company has been monitoring harbor seals to assess the impact of noise on the seals from construction of the new lifeguard tower at Children’s Pool.

As part of the city’s contract with the federal government, “intermittent” noise harassment of seals is allowed at up to 90 decibels — the level at which both human and harbor seal hearing can be damaged (sea lions can bear up to 100 decibels before their hearing is at risk, Hanan said).

Ironically, Hanan noted, a child screaming at Children’s Pool can easily reach 100 decibels, while his recording of four marine jets flying overhead registered at about 90 decibels.

Hanan said he has already spotted several pregnant seals at Children’s Pool beach this season. Pupping season there began Dec. 15, during which time the beach is entirely closed to human access.

While most people are honoring the new pupping season beach closure at Children’s Pool, Hanan said he recently noticed footprints in the sand indicating some people accessed the beach over the weekend.

Daneri said the full-time park ranger stationed at Children’s Pool, Rich Belesky, issued two warnings to people for being on the beach since the closure went into effect, and has had contact with people coming around the wall during extremely low tides, at which times he informed them of the closure and they returned to the South Casa Beach area. Fines for accessing Children’s Pool beach during the pupping season closure are up to $1,000.