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Emotions Swell in the Battle of Swimmers vs. Pro-Seal Activists

Fecal contamination by marine mammals led to closure of a La Jolla beach in '97. A milestone in the fight that ensued may loom.

June 27, 2004|William Wan | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — It's been called a fight between man and seal.

But the battle over a beach in La Jolla has mostly been a case of man versus man -- or, more specifically, pro-seal activists versus pro-swimming demonstrators.

Fistfights, fines and restraining orders have become commonplace. In the latest skirmish -- at a meeting to discuss dredging the beach -- an aria was sung, comparing one side's leader to a seal-shooting witch.

The acrimony started in 1997, when the number of seals on Children's Pool beach reached a critical mass. Their droppings polluted the waters so much that city officials closed the beach and put up signs warning swimmers of fecal contamination.

Ever since, some longtime ocean swimmers have fought to reclaim the beach. Other people, meanwhile, have sat on the sand in three-hour shifts to keep swimmers out of the water and away from the seals.

Members of a San Diego City Council committee spent more than three hours rehashing the issue last week when they considered a proposal to flush away the fecal pollution.

The plan, outlined in a city manager's report, suggests moving 3,000 cubic yards of polluted sand to a nearby beach in hopes that the tides will carry it away. Most members of the committee refused to recommend the proposal, calling it flawed.

But out of deference to a colleague, the five-member panel voted unanimously to place the issue before the full council.

Nearly 100 people showed up for the hearing, and the discussion was mostly cordial compared to past confrontations. The public comments reached their loudest when one pro-seal activist broke into song, turning an aria from Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" into a lyrical attack on one opponent's position:

"Seals on my beach, what a horrible sight! Would I not shoot them? Oh Dear! If I might."

"It was not malicious," said resident Marjane Aalam, the opera student. "We like to discuss things, but there's just no way to discuss with these people."

Melinda Merryweather, portrayed as the villain in the song, said she had received far worse. Once, she said, pro-seal activists aired her home phone number on the radio, urging callers to harass her because they alleged that Merryweather hated seals.

"I don't hate seals.... I mean, what kind of person hates seals?" she said. "I just want my granddaughter to be able to swim on the beach."

Merryweather said she learned to swim at Children's Pool, as did her grandmother, her mother and her son.

Children's Pool was built in 1931 with a donation from newspaper heiress Ellen Browning Scripps. Designers installed a sea wall on one side to shield children from the ocean's waves.

Seal activists argue that the area has plenty of other swimmable beaches.

"The children love seeing the seals. The children need the seals," said James Hudnall, who helped found La Jolla Friends of the Seals.

Hudnall is compiling a video history of the seals -- and a few sea lions -- on the beach and has amassed 250 hours of footage. But swimmers say his main purpose is video surveillance so he can report swimmers to marine officials.

"We can't even park our car without him filming us," said Jean Perry, who swims occasionally at Children's Pool. Another resident has heckled Perry so much, she said, that her family has secured restraining orders against him.

Hudnall, however, believes that those on the marine mammals' side of the issue have received worse treatment. "One guy jumped me one morning at 4 a.m. when I caught him untying the ropes" that cordon off the beach, he said.

Hudnall confirmed that he tapes and reports swimmers who enter the beach and disturb the seals. "It's illegal," he said of those activities.

That, too, is a point of contention. When San Diego County first discovered the high bacteria levels, it banned swimming on the beach. But it has since lifted the ban and reduced it to a warning. Advocates for the seals, however, have invoked the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits harassment of seals. Whether swimming at the beach constitutes harassment is disputed.

Swimmers staged a demonstration on the beach last year, trying to prove that man and seal could coexist. But as the swimmers entered the cove, the seals apparently panicked and stampeded off the beach into the water. One seal lunged at a swimmer, who escaped with scrapes and bruises.

Officials slapped nine swimmers with $1,000 fines, but most of the cases were settled for less.

The idea that swimmers and seals can coexist is part of the dredging plan being considered. The council declined a similar proposal in 1999, and the current version's chances appear slim.

At the meeting last week, three council members said they would vote against it. One said the dredging could cost as much as $500,000, with no guarantee that the work would in fact improve water quality.

The mayor of San Diego -- of which La Jolla is a part -- has not set a date for the full council to discuss the proposal, but both sides are gearing up for the fight.

The seal supporters have begun a campaign to send letters and e-mail to council members. And a lawyer representing one of the swimmers has filed suit against the city alleging that it is reneging on terms in the deed, which calls for the beach to be used by children for swimming.

Council members are calling for calm.

"Sometimes," said Councilman Michael Zucchet, "passions go a little too far."

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