Sea lions: New pinniped problem for La Jolla?



Staff Writer

Regulars at La Jolla Cove are beginning to refer to it tongue-in-cheek as the “lion’s den.”

But these lions “bark” rather than “growl.” They’re aquatic not terrestrial. And though not nearly as menacing as their land counterparts, encounters with them are increasingly being characterized as “unsettling.”

“It’s intimidating, it’s unnerving and it’s scary,” said longtime La Jollan Anne Cleveland, who swims daily at the Cove and claims the sea lions there are becoming more aggressive and colonizing, now considering Alligator Head, Razor’s Reef and Million Dollar Reef to be “their territory.”

One can’t get close to the sea lions new “domain” in and around La Jolla Cove without hearing their bellowing from some distance away — or sensing their intimidating presence in the water, say some Cove users.

“They patrol back and forth,” noted Cleveland. “One Sunday when I was here there was a big one right at the shoreline … It looked like he was trying to keep people from coming into his territory.”

Until recently, La Jolla’s “lions” have taken a back seat in notoriety to their smaller, more demure cousins — the harbor seals — around the corner in the Children’s Pool. For years, the seals have been embroiled in a political and legal tug of war over their presence displacing humans and their waste fouling the pool.

But sea lions are quickly becoming the new talk of the town. The reason: Not only their growing numbers and audio and visual distraction, but, like seals, their waste too pollutes local waters.

“It’s become a toilet,” said Cleveland.

“I have to keep the door closed,” agreed Manuel Aguilar, who works up the hill from the Cove at La Jolla Athletic Club at 1202 Prospect St. “It’s loud,” he said. “That doesn’t really bother me as much as the smell does: It kind of comes and goes.”

Aguilar said plenty of club members, 90 percent of whom also swim at the Cove, have complained about lion noises and smells. But he added, “It’s not like they have a representative you can talk to.”

And though she can’t conclusively prove it, Cleveland insists there are other health concerns for humans posed be sea lions at the Cove.

“I’m afraid dysentery-like stomach bugs and ear infections have become common among regular Cove swimmers,” she said in an e-mail to First District Councilwoman Sherri Lightner. “I have had trouble with both for most of this year.”

How much of a problem sea lions have become — or are becoming — at the Cove is a matter of conjecture. But one thing about them there is undeniable.

“The population is much larger than it has historically been in the last 25 years — for sure, particularly between the Clam and the Cove,” said Lt. John Everhart, the lifeguard in charge of La Jolla. “It’s been a gradual increase, but more drastic in the last five years — probably double.”

Everhart said people are complaining more about sea lions, but added such complaints are more about fear then cause.

“They’re loud and they’re large animals and people are nervous swimming around them,” he said. “But we haven’t had anyone injured by a sea lion or anything like that.”

It’s also difficult, said Everhart, to discern which creature is most responsible for unpleasant odors at the Cove: sea lions, birds or sewage runoff from humans.

Should ocean users at the Cove be concerned about the growing presence of sea lions there?

Yes and no, said Joe Cordaro, a wildlife biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Long Beach.

“They’re more territorial on land than they are in the water,” he said. “When they approach people in the water, it’s more of a curiosity factor.”

But Cordero pointed out it might not be wise to swim in areas densely populated by sea lions.

“They’re one of the prime foods for large sharks like whites, which could mistake humans for pinnipeds,” he said adding, “It’s a good idea, even if there are no shark sightings, to be aware.”

There’s one more thing about sea lions that’s not likely to change.

“Sea lion populations are with us to stay,” noted Cordero. “They’re just going to keep getting bigger and bigger.”