While waiting for public discussion later this fall of a Parks and Recreation Department plan to make Children's Pool available for swimmers, some of La Jolla's residents are busy trying to make precedent out of plans of their own. One camp's partisans routinely enter the water now from the Children's Pool beach, still cordoned off by the city from visitors, and swim north to Seal Rock and back. The other camp has appointed itself guardians of the large seal population that has made the beach its home and regularly chastises or reports to the authorities anyone it deems in violation of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Don Riley has made the seals of Children's Pool his special interest for at least ten years. Early every morning he drives his motorhome to the cliffs above the beach, a place he calls "a sacred spot," and assesses the well-being of the seals that each year are visited by thousands of people from all over the world. Riley thinks any human entrance into Children's Pool or onto its beach cannot help disturbing the seals and thereby breaking the law. The Marine Mammal Protection Act is written in such a way that something as little as causing a seal to look up could be interpreted as a violation.
San Diego's lifeguards, claims Riley, are unnecessarily encouraging seal harassment these days with a message written on the signboard outside their station. On a day early this November, the message read: "Persons are allowed to enter Children's Pool as long as seals do not get disturbed." That, from Riley's perspective, is impossible.
According to Riley, a lifeguard lieutenant once told him that seals are protected only on Seal Rock. "But," Riley says, "the law protects seals from humans everywhere."
Several times since late August, from the cliff and the sea wall donated by Ellen Browning Scripps in 1931, visitors watching the seals booed people who had gone beyond the protective cordon onto the beach, yelling at them to get off. In one such incident, several people had walked onto the beach when the seals were gone only to have two seals swim ashore. As the crowds from above began taking notice of the animals, pointing them out and photographing them, the humans on the beach walked toward them and flushed them back into the water. The onlookers made their displeasure known with derisive shouts.
Those who favor human use of Children's Pool, however, maintain that Riley and others provoke incidents like this one by working visitors up and urging them to yell at people on the beach. Feeling endangered by the crowd displays, John Steele and several other La Jolla residents went to court on September 21 and obtained a two-year restraining order against Riley.
Contentiousness over seals increased with the rapid growth of the pinniped population during the 1990s. People from all over San Diego have memories of swimming with seals at Children's Pool. It was a more idyllic time, perhaps, when they could do so, but even today, says Jeanne Perry of La Jolla, seals "come right up next to you while you're snorkeling, and you'll feel something tugging on your fin. Then a head pops up. They're quite curious. And they certainly have the advantage in the water."
What exasperates many today is that, in donating money for a sea wall, Ellen Browning Scripps had intended to create a safe place for children, the handicapped, and the elderly to swim in the ocean. The beach was smaller and farther back from the water then, and few if any seals frequented it. Instead, the seals hauled themselves up onto Seal Rock farther north toward Shell Beach. But as the Children's Pool beach got larger from sands washing onto it, seals migrated to it for the softer rest and sun's warmth it provides. Estimates today put the number of seals using the beach at near 200.
When asked why humans should not return to the beach, Jim Hudnall, from La Jolla Friends of the Seals, says, "When people go too close to the seals, and one seal gets frightened, she'll often panic into the water, and that causes all the other seals to flush into the water. To cause something like that is patently against federal law. So, for practical reasons, it's impossible to share that little piece of sand."
According to Hudnall, sudden flushing of seals into the water can affect their survival adversely. "For instance, anytime they're frightened into the water when moms are with little pups," he says, "there's the chance for mom-and-pup separation. And the Marine Mammal Protection Act is designed to give the animals the best chance for survival they can have on their own." Hudnall did his undergraduate work in geology, worked in marine geology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and did graduate study in oceanography. For the past several years, he has been closely watching seal behavior off the coast of La Jolla.
"The seals," he says, "are now using the Children's Pool beach as a rookery for birthing their pups, nursing their young, and hauling out of the water year-round to reoxygenate their blood, something harbor seals need to do. They have a strong need in the course of their survival to pull out of the water, and there are only certain kinds of places they can do that, fairly sheltered places, because they can't rotate their pelvises up underneath them and walk, the way sea lions can."
The local seals, Hudnall has observed, use the Children's Pool beach more than Seal Rock, except at lower tides. "My theory on that," he says, "which is not proven, is that Seal Rock is eroding at a rapid rate, as is the rest of the coastline in that area, and probably has lowered so much in the last few years that it is not a suitable place for harbor seals to haul out the way it was, say, in the '50s and '60s, when they were using it and not using Children's Pool beach. On most days throughout the winter, you will see, at higher tides, huge waves sweeping across the top of the rock. So, today, Seal Rock is absolutely an impossible place for a mother seal to keep her baby or haul out and stay dry to get warm."