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La Jolla Aims to Retake Beach

Residents have lost patience with harbor seals, which abandoned their own sanctuary for Children's Pool. Officials plan to destroy much of cove in effort to force animals out.

November 27, 1998|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — When the harbor seal invasion began at the Children's Pool in La Jolla, it was treated as a bit of a beachside hassle, a fun nuisance, a photo opportunity.

Who could resist these adorable sea mammals lounging on the golden sand, resting peacefully beneath the rich sunshine like tourists suffering jet lag?

The city posted 19 signs telling humans to stay back and give the seals a wide berth--warning of the myriad laws that protect seals and other sea animals. (Of the 19 signs, four remind tourists that seals can bite ferociously.)

But now the amphibious assault by the furry creatures with the raspy barks and the slippery flippers has been underway for two years. For city officials, cuteness has long since given way to frustration.

The seals show no signs of returning to their offshore sanctuary on nearby Seal Rock. The Children's Pool is so polluted with seal feces that health officials last year ruled the azure waters off limits to humans. On a good day, upward of 200 seals sleep and sun themselves on the beach.

And the San Diego City Council is at wits' end about how to reclaim one of the city's most treasured beach attractions, built in 1931 with a grant from newspaper heiress Ellen Browning Scripps "for the children of San Diego."

Various ideas to rid the beach of seals have been floated and rejected: netting, prods, forcible relocation, round-the-clock explosions, underwater waves, killer whale sounds injected into the water--even putting a large replica of a killer whale on the beach.

Instead, the council has decided to destroy 75% of the beach in hopes of saving the remainder.

As soon as permits are obtained from local, state and federal agencies, bulldozers will scoop up 3,000 cubic yards of sand along the waterline. The goal is to allow the sea to rush in and encourage the seals to leave rather than compete with humans for the one-fourth of the beach that will survive.

Whether the plan will work is anyone's guess. So far, the seals have proven decidedly unpredictable.

"These seals are acting more like domesticated animals than seals," said lifeguard Lt. Charlie Wright.

Textbooks say seals are supposed to be so frightened of humans that they will flee when people approach. The seals at the Children's Pool have apparently not read those textbooks.

In fact, the seals decided to invade the Children's Pool just as Seal Rock was being reserved exclusively for their use. To the dismay of divers and swimmers, the council made Seal Rock off-limits to all but seals, on the theory that the presence of humans was injurious to them.

When the humans left Seal Rock, so too did the seals. Go figure, biologically speaking.

If all goes well, the dredging should be complete by the 1999 summer tourist season. "If someone has a better solution, we're willing to listen," said Terri Williams, deputy director of the city Park and Recreation Department.

Harbor Seals Versus Children

The Children's Pool is no ordinary stretch of beach. Formed by a concrete arc of breakwater, the tiny cove just off Coast Boulevard is possibly the most gentle stretch of ocean in the city.

Other beaches in this part of La Jolla may be just as pretty, but they tend to be rocky and wave-tossed--and not always suitable for the younger set. Hence the civic desire to return the sheltered Children's Pool to its intended use.

"Ellen Scripps would turn over in her grave if she knew the lovely pool she built for children had become a filthy toilet for a bunch of seals," said Mary Garrison, an interior decorator who loved to bring her two young daughters to wade in the water of the Children's Pool.

Still, the seals are not without a constituency.

"The seals are part of nature and deserve respect," said Martin James, an artist and amateur biologist. "Trying to make them move from where they're comfortable is wrong."

The city's Park and Recreation Department is stuck in the middle of the two conflicting views. In a recent week, the department received 11 letters from people angry that beach-goers are intruding on the seals' chosen turf, and 18 letters from people who want the seals removed, regardless of the method.

In political terms, the issue became seals versus kids. Led by Councilman Harry Mathis, a retired Navy submarine captain who represents La Jolla, the council sided with the kids.

Netting was seen as impractical. Nets would have kept the seals out, but also would have prevented scuba divers and snorkelers from using the cove as an entry and exit spot.

Making loud noises to scare the seals away would probably violate the city's noise abatement ordinance, officials decided, and most certainly would cause uproar from beachfront residents whose sleep and serenity would have been disturbed.

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