A year or so ago, Cleveland saw a sea lion at the Cove “literally lunge at this guy and actually tore through his wetsuit” while he was trying to enter the water. He wasn’t taunting the animal, “he just wanted to get in and go for a swim.”
“Definitely the sea lion was the aggressor,” she said, and “after he was bitten he left.”
“I don’t like to live my life in fear,” said Cleveland, who stopped swimming at the Cove in 2012 because of the sea lions as well as persistent ear infections that she said subsided soon after she stopped going in the water there. Although she can’t prove it, she attributes the ear infections to the sea lion poop.
“In front of us, shoots a sea lion — you know they shoot right in front of you — [with] a big giant poo stream shooting out the back,” Cleveland said. “When that happened to me, it just really ruined it for me.”
Also fear-producing are the escalating recent sightings of Great White sharks, which feed on seals and sea lions, one of which washed up on La Jolla Shores in June with a shark bite. Rose and other swimmers say it’s just a matter of time before a shark mistakes a swimmer wearing a black wetsuit for a sea lion.
“It’s not if, but when,” said Richard Walker, 73, a La Jolla business owner who swims at the Cove most mornings with a group, including his wife, often to the Shores and sometimes making the three miles to the Scripps pier and back.
But for the city officials who are juggling competing human interests as well as legal restrictions and marine mammal protections, alleviating the situation is not as simple as finding somewhere else to swim.
Despite microbial solution having been sprayed on the cliffs of the Cove in June and September 2013, the same public health and welfare concerns that prompted former mayor Bob Filner to declare an emergency there this summer still exist.
“The same sort of declaration could be made today,” Merkel said. “The concern becomes what would you do if you had it…because the approach we took before would not be the most reasonable, efficient, or prudent. Right now the key is formulating an approach that makes more sense. Making the findings doesn’t seem to be the biggest problem.”
Meanwhile, as the sea lion population continues to grow, the animals are becoming more comfortable and more established at the Cove, which means that the related problems may increase as well.
“There’s plenty of rock out there,” Merkel said. “It’s certainly not at capacity. There are certainly more animals that could show up there that haven’t.”
Merkel likened the colony of sea lions to a pack of dogs off their leashes that feel as though the Cove has become their own yard in which to play.
“It’s just a matter of the comfort zone. Once they become accustomed to that being their rock and that area, they will become more protective and more territorial.”
That awful smell
So far, the city has paid Merkel & Associates $50,000 under an initial contract. In mid-November, Merkel said additional services would require newly authorized funds.
The city paid $50,000 to Blue Eagle to spray the cliffs for about a month, starting in late May, and again for about five days, starting in late September.
Although the microbial bacteria solution of bacillus was billed as all-natural, Rose said she threw up in the water while swimming along the cliffs on two separate occasions — not knowing that they had just been sprayed until afterward.
“I didn’t know they did a second treatment,” she said. “I was throwing up all day. The next day I saw the signs…. That’s not supposed to be bothering us.”
Merkel agreed, saying the spray should not have caused anyone to get sick, particularly because there was no runoff from the cliffs into the water.
“We actually prevented all runoff,” he said, explaining that they weren’t allowed to spray the steep area on the cliff faces or during high winds.
“There is an awful lot of waste in the water — sea lion waste — so I wouldn’t be surprised” if someone could have gotten sick from that, Merkel said.
The intent was to spray the solution only on the waste and not where the slope breaks on the water. As planned, the bacteria went to work eating the bird guano, multiplied and died off, taking the waste and related odor with it.
Only a short time after the spraying treatment, however, an equally nauseating odor emerged, which likely had been there all along and only became more evident once the nose-burning ammonia from the bird poop had been eliminated.
Once Merkel, city officials, and the merchants realized that sea lion poop was then the primary cause of the odor problem, pleas for action from the business community started up again.
Although Merkel considers the first two phases of spraying to have been “very successful” and said the city could continue to treat the lingering and persistent smell with further sprays, he also said it wouldn’t be an efficient or permanent fix because the odor would be renewed every time the sea lions had a good feeding on greasy sardines and anchovies.
“It was not sustainable in the current condition because, again, like I said, it would take days, weeks, months to generate the kind of waste that a sea lion can do overnight,” he said. “As a result, that kind of treatment works well with an accumulated waste.”
So, it was back to the drawing board as Merkel and city officials tried to find a more comprehensive, long-term solution.
“I don’t think people are intentionally being obtuse about their responses,” he said. “I think it’s honestly a more complicated issue than the smell, [which] is really a symptom of a bigger problem.”
“It’s making people sick.”
Water-quality issues make up one component of that larger problem. On October 17, swimmers and divers at the Cove saw the first cautionary posting by the county Department of Environmental Health since 2009. Including the one in 2009, there were seven previous postings since 2002.