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Situation: Sea Lions - Parks & Beaches wants city action at La Jolla Cove by May 30

La Jolla Parks & Beaches (LJPB) advisory group has given the city until May 30 to do something about the increased sea lion presence at La Jolla Cove and the resulting problems with public access and safety. Eyeing the approaching tourist season and calling the situation “an emergency waiting to happen,” the board approved a resolution at its April 27 meeting urgently requesting the city take action.

La Jolla Cove Swim Club president Dan Simonelli said the sea lion population at the Cove beach has increased over the last few years, and the sea lions have expanded their resting areas to include the staircase leading to the beach (the only pedestrian access point currently in place while construction on the new lifeguard tower is ongoing) and the deck between Scripps Park and the beach.

While resting, primarily in the early morning hours, Simonelli said sea lions defecate and urinate in those areas. “Some people are nonchalant about what’s going on, but this is an emergency waiting to happen,” he said.

As such, the LJPB resolution requested the city:

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1) Install some form of gate mechanism or other temporary barrier on the stairway leading to/from La Jolla Cove beach to prevent sea lions moving off the beach;

2) Conduct regular cleanup of sea lion feces from the stairs, deck and walkway areas; and

3) Institute a program of morning beach inspection and sand cleaning at La Jolla Cove.

The increased sea lion presence at the la Jolla cove swimming hole is frustrating beach-users. SuSan DeMaggio
The increased sea lion presence at the la Jolla cove swimming hole is frustrating beach-users. SuSan DeMaggio

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Citing an example of why these actions are needed, Simonelli explained that the week prior to the LJPB meeting, a sea lion was on the deck by the benches and had “let out” (defecated) in a trail early that morning.

“We were watching the sea lion as it was leaving, and it moved into a position that it blocked the stairs so those already on the beach could not get out for a few minutes,” he said.

“The sea lion dragged the trail (of feces) when it moved around,” Simonelli said. “A lifeguard was coming on duty and because people were arriving for a day at the beach, they gave me a bucket and shovel to clean it up. It was definitely the grossest thing I’ve ever had to do.” Simonelli later told La Jolla Light, “The problem is over the course of the day (sea lion waste) gets covered with sand and people don’t see it and step in it, sit in it, lay in it, etc.” But perhaps more importantly, he said, the swim club’s chief concern is regarding public access and safety on the beach and in the water, and making the San Diego City Council and other community groups aware of the daily goings-on with the sea lions at the Cove.

Swimmer Penny Nagel said she is one of those who has been stuck on the beach by a sea lion blocking public access. “There were a lot of them on the stairs one day that basically blocked us off; we couldn’t get them off the stairs. The lifeguards had to come and help us get off the beach and that was just one incident,” she said. “I grew up here and have lived here my entire life. I remember when it used to be exciting to see a sea lion, but now they are everywhere.”

Citing a bevy of issues that go beyond the infamous Cove Odor situation, several swimmers who frequent the Cove said the influx of sea lions is a recent phenomenon. Many theorize that when the gate was opened in the rail above La Jolla Cove in December 2013, it allowed for public access to the bluffs and the new human presence caused some sea lions to move to the beach.

La Jolla Cove is frequented by swimmers, tourists, and lately, sea lions.
La Jolla Cove is frequented by swimmers, tourists, and lately, sea lions.
(Ashley Mackin)

More than a smell

The foul odor issue at La Jolla Cove continues to plague nearby businesses and residents. Although San Diego Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor ruled March 27 that the city doesn’t have a responsibility to control any nuisance caused by wild animals in a lawsuit filed two years ago by the Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement (CONA), an appeal is planned. Simonelli said his group seeks to tackle the

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problem at the source. “There are other issues here. CONA’s lawsuit is important, but it focused on the sea lions’ impact on businesses, and that’s not our purview,” he said. “We didn’t want to come forward with the same argument or make it seem we were only talking about the smell.

“It’s been frustrating, from my point of view, that the lawsuit ended with the judge saying doing something about the smell is not the city’s responsibility. That got interpreted as, the city does not have to do anything at all about the sea lions,” he said.

Will Newborn, who has been swimming at the Cove for 25 years, said, “The city does not have an active program to clean up after the sea lions. I would hate to see one of the best beaches in America become one of the worst. The city needs to step in and start cleaning up.”

Simonelli agreed. “The cleanup should be a regular process. If the city isn’t willing or able, due to funding or personnel, that’s an issue we should be able to overcome,” he said.

Tourist trap

Tourists who get too close to sea lions, risk injury, say some swimmers who’ve witnessed such incidents. Signs posted on the bluffs remind visitors that sea lions are wild animals and people should keep their distance, similar signs are on the beach stairs.

“A lot of tourists who come here don’t act very smart,” Cove swimmer Dorsey Cullen said. “They get within inches of these animals and take pictures. The sea lions move at the tourists and they generally get away, but one day someone is not going to move fast enough to get out of the way.” Cullen said he’s written a handful of letters to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office requesting attention to the conditions at the Cove.

Nagel added she has witnessed tourists feeding sea lions, which she thinks discourages them from going out to sea to hunt.

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Lifeguard Lt. Rich Stropky said tourists taking “selfie” photos with sea lions has gained popularity, and lifeguards are adapting by focusing on education. “Tourists visit without understanding what they can and cannot do, so our lifeguards are spending more time now teaching people about sea lions and making sure they keep a good distance so they aren’t disturbing them and causing issues,” he said.

Simonelli said the docile appearance of sea lions is often deceptive to visitors. “Too many people get too close,” he said. “As soon as you startle the sea lions or they get uncomfortable, they can whip around quickly and snap or bark. They’re just giving a warning, but that’s a sign that people are getting too close.”

On March 22, a 5-year-old boy was bit in the cheek by a sea lion at the bottom of the stairs leading to the beach. The boy’s father reportedly allowed him to approach a group of sea lions to pet one. His father declined medical attention from lifeguards and took him to the hospital.

“When the number of people is high and the number of sea lions is high, the number of incidents is going to be high,” Simonelli said. “It’s inevitable.”

Visitors line up for a chance to have a photo taken with sea lions resting on the rocks above La Jolla Cove. Getting this close to sea lions (or seals) is prohibited by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Many sea lions at the Cove have become acclimated to close encounters with humans. Pat Sherman
Visitors line up for a chance to have a photo taken with sea lions resting on the rocks above La Jolla Cove. Getting this close to sea lions (or seals) is prohibited by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Many sea lions at the Cove have become acclimated to close encounters with humans. Pat Sherman

The lifeguard’s take

Lt. Stropky said lifeguards have noticed more sea lions on the beach at the Cove, but will not let them impede the course of duty. “There are some challenges we haven’t had in the past. Sea lions can look like rocks and I’ve heard that sometimes people trip over them,” he said. “But if we see something causing a conflict, we solve the problem with adjustments to staffing and equipment.”

For example, with construction on a new lifeguard tower leaving only one pedestrian staircase, the lifeguards placed an additional chair at the bottom of the other set of stairs that are closed to the public (they lead to the construction site), so lifeguards have immediate access. Should the lifeguard stationed at the temporary tower see a problem, he or she can radio the ground-level guard.

“Once the lifeguards get on the beach, the conditions are just like on any crowded beach; it’s an obstacle course they have to adapt to. By no means are sea lions impeding our job as lifeguards to watch the water and provide safety,” Stropky said.

Acclimation situation

“There are more sea lions than ever and it seems like they’ve acclimated to this area and are really comfortable with human interaction,” observed Steve Dillard, whose daughter trains in La Jolla Cove for the Catalina Channel relay race.

Monica L. DeAngelis, NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region Marine Mammal Biologist, explained that compared to other sea lions and seals, California sea lions are not as skittish and would not be as easily “scared” by human presence. However, younger sea lions may be more sensitive to human presence than older ones.

She described sea lions as “extremely gregarious and social animals. When they aren’t foraging they can be observed resting or sleeping on land or in the water.”

However, during the breeding season months of May through July, DeAngelis said male sea lions will be territorial, even juveniles. “We also have a situation with sick young animals this year and their behavior is even more unpredictable because of their (starving) condition. The public needs to remember these are wild animals and their behavior is unpredictable, so best to stay at a safe distance.”

Should the city decline to act

Having volunteered with several events at the Cove, swimmer Bill Robbins said his concern is with the future of annual events, such as the San Diego Triathlon Challenge. This event raises about a million dollars for the Challenged Athletes Foundation and its swimming component is held at the Cove.

“What do we do when there are sea lions all over the beach and we have the Triathlon? We’ll have hundreds of people here of all ages who aren’t familiar with sea lions and we don’t have any authority to get the sea lions out of the way,” Robbins said. “There has to come a time when people take priority over the sea lions.”

At the La Jolla Parks & Beaches April 27 meeting, member Debbie Beacham said the board should look at ways to utilize Marine Mammal Protection Act section 109(h) which grants a federal, state or local government official or employee or designated person the authority to humanely harass a marine mammal if it is for the protection or welfare of the mammal, the protection of the public health and welfare, or the nonlethal removal of nuisance animals.

“We can analyze 109(h), which allows a community to hire someone to ‘harass’ the animals and shoo them away,” she said. “The city can give permission.”

Should the sea lion population continue to expand at La Jolla Cove, swimmer Dillard said he fears the city might deem the area too dangerous for people and close the beach completely.

“My concern is that we won’t be able to use this beach for swimming if conditions stay the way they are. I believe we are heading in a direction where what happened at Children’s Pool will happen here,” Dillard said, referencing the five- month closure there.

The comment left Simonelli to press the issue, “What is the city going to do about this?”

A Blue Eagle worker, hired by the City of San Diego, sprays a layer of cleaning agent on the La Jolla Cove bluffs in 2013. Ashley Mackin
A Blue Eagle worker, hired by the City of San Diego, sprays a layer of cleaning agent on the La Jolla Cove bluffs in 2013. Ashley Mackin

— Situation: Sea Lion Timeline —

■ May 2013: Former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner signs an executive order stating the buildup of animal waste at La Jolla Cove is a threat to human health and constitutes a “public health and welfare emergency,” calling for the guano to be cleaned up.

June 2013: The City of San Diego begins a series of regular applications of microbial foam, attempting to “cleanse” the smell.

November 2013: Although the original source of the Cove stench is believed to be cormorants and other sea birds, the city determines the source is actually the sea lions and their waste.

December 2013: Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement (CONA) comprised of La Jolla business owners, sues the city for what they view as public officials’ failure to rid La Jolla Cove of its odor from bird and marine mammal waste. The suit leads to a gate installation to allow public access to bluffs below, which CONA argues will deter sea lions from congregating there.

April 2014: David Butcher, a former corporate vice- president of animal behavior for SeaWorld, says he can condition the marine mammals to move away from the Cove, using a method of learning that involves rewards and punishment for behavior. The city considers his proposal.

January 2015: La Jolla Light begins publishing a weekly “Cove Stench Calendar” to show how many days the Cove Stench is prevalent.

February 2015: The city decides to decline using Butcher’s conditioning methods to control animal presence, but announces it would contract 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.”

March 2015: A Superior Court judge rules the City of San Diego is not liable for ridding the Cove of its odor. The same month, a 5-year-old boy is bit on the cheek by a sea lion at the bottom of stairs leading to the beach.

April 2015: La Jolla Town Council hosts an educational forum on all things sea lions at La Jolla Rec Center.

May 2015: Representatives from community advisory groups meet with knowledgeable sources on possible ways to adjust the sea lion population.

May 18: Next La Jolla Parks & Beaches meeting, where the committee hopes a representative from the city will address their urgent request.

California sea lion. Daniel K. Lew
California sea lion. Daniel K. Lew

— Sea Lion Facts —

Lifespan: 20-30 years

Diet: Squid, anchovies, mackerel, rockfish and sardines

Size: Males can reach 700-850 pounds and up to 7.5 feet in length. Females can reach 240 pounds and up to 6 feet in length.

Breeding Patterns: Mainly breed on offshore islands, ranging from southern California’s Channel Islands south to Mexico, although a few pups have been born on Año Nuevo and the Farallon Islands in central California.

Physical Features: Male California sea lions have a robust body while females and juveniles have a more slender body. They have broad fore-flippers and a long, narrow snout. Males have a broad forehead. Their coats are dark brown with females being slightly lighter in color.

Predators: Killer whales, sharks, humans

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