The colony “hauling out” on the rocks and swimming around the waters of the Cove has grown logarithmically.
About a year ago at the La Jolla Cove, longtime marathon swimmer Claudia Rose was making her way toward La Jolla Shores with a friend when a group of sea lions charged at them. Startled into a fight-or-flight reaction, the swimmers veered to the south, toward the caves, to get away from the pinnipeds. Rose’s friend panicked, cramped up, and couldn’t swim very well, but his wetsuit kept him buoyant until he could recover.
Also fear-producing are the escalating recent sightings of Great White sharks, which feed on seals and sea lions.
Rose was shaken by the confrontation but was even more unnerved a couple of months later, when a sea lion attacked her injured, bandaged hand.
“I had tape on my finger. He ripped off the tape and he broke or sprained my finger really badly,” said Rose, 49, a systems engineer who has been swimming at the Cove for nearly two decades. “We haven’t had that kind of touching behavior before.”
Sea lions sometimes try to discourage swimmers from entering the Cove waters.
Reflecting a population explosion of sea lions along the California coast, the colony “hauling out” on the rocks and swimming around the waters of the Cove has grown logarithmically in the past decade.
The small number of sea lions that swimmers used to enjoy watching frolic some years ago has turned into a colony of as many as 300, ranging in size from 100-pound females to 900-pound bulls, which have been mounting, biting, charging, and baring their teeth at swimmers and beachgoers.
Keith Merkel, a biological consultant hired by the city, says, “The thing about people is they’re willing to pet anything until they get bit.”
“The baring the teeth thing — they’re very aggressive, so again, people have to remember they are wild animals,” said Monica DeAngelis, a marine mammal biologist with the National Marine Fishery Service’s West Coast regional office, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s hard to predict or know what they might be thinking.”
Drew Downs (left) and Richard Walker swim daily at dawn in La Jolla Cove. They were recently blocked by a large and aggressive sea lion who bared his teeth whenever they tried to enter the water.
Lately, the increasingly territorial animals have started blocking swimmers from getting into the water, forcing people to walk back and forth on the beach until they can find a safe opening to enter the ocean. One even went so far as to bite a swimmer wearing a wetsuit at the water’s edge.
“It could be that they have their area and they may be trying to stay within that area,” DeAngelis said. “During August, it could be the tail end of breeding, that dominant behavior. The following [of swimmers]…could be a confused male; it could potentially be thinking it’s another male. They are probably looking for food, too.”
This sign posted at the new gate to the previously fenced-off bluffs above the Cove that sea lions frequent. Many swimmers hope that the presence of people on the bluffs will reduce the sea lion population.
She said people are exacerbating the problem by tossing fish, potato chips, and leftover food off the cliffs and over the sides of boats.
“People need to quit feeding them,” she said.
The animals are also making their larger presence known by excreting big bubble clouds of brown waste and streams of urine into the water and onto the rocks, and keeping residents awake with loud barking.
Mark Dibella, managing director of La Valencia: Boxer Floyd Mayweather booked two villas and six rooms. Mayweather checked in and, 15 minutes later, checked out all his guests.
“It’s dirty, it stinks, and it’s like swimming in a toilet that hasn’t been flushed,” said Anne Cleveland, 57, a yoga instructor and former La Jolla Town Council president.
Once thought to be caused by the avian guano on the rocks, the foul odor that has tourists covering their faces with their T-shirts or scarves, exclaiming, “Oh, my God, this is awful,” has recently been determined to be caused by vast quantities of sea lion poop.
Sea lions claiming La Jolla Cove for their own
La Jolla Cove locals discuss the sea lions that have descended upon La Jolla Cove in the past ten years, befouling the area with poop and becoming aggressive with humans.
The odor is a problem unto itself — driving locals and tourists away from area restaurants and hotels — but it is also an indicator of an even broader set of problems, including water-quality issues and the increasingly troublesome pinniped vs. people interactions playing out on the sand and in the water.
The lifeguard log provides a chronicle of such incidents in 2013. On April 16 at 5:04 p.m., “seal nuzzles and mounts woman off beach, [lifeguard Mark] Feighan in on board to assist and chase seal away.” Lifeguard chief Rick Wurts said the lifeguard grabbed a rescue board after the swimmer either signaled for help or the lifeguard somehow realized she was in distress. He “became concerned for her safety, and went in to assist her.”
On July 26 at 5:50 p.m, lifeguards used the public address system to warn “citizen of very aggressive sea lion in Cove.”
The next day, lifeguards used the public address system three times to warn beachgoers: once at 9:50 a.m., about an “aggressive sea lion on beach”; at 6 p.m., when “a sea lion bull charged beach,” and again half an hour later, when lifeguards had to warn a crowd of 30 “citizens to keep back” and away from the animal.
On August 6 at 12:30 p.m., “sea lion comes onto beach and nips at waders.”
There’s room for more sea lions
The city hired Merkel & Associates to help the city resolve the odor problem. Keith Merkel, a biological consultant, said he wasn’t surprised to hear about such incidents because he’d anticipated them happening.
“The upshot of it is having that many people and the sea lions both thinking that the Cove is theirs is going to generate those territorial interactions,” Merkel said. “I think people are more curious. The thing about people is they’re willing to pet anything until they get bit.”
Although Merkel said the animals may just be playing and don’t intend any harm in some cases, even some of the most hardcore ocean swimmers are reporting that the animals are scaring them or making them so uncomfortable that they have started swimming elsewhere.
“Fear” has become part of a vocabulary that these athletes don’t like to admit and don’t want as part of their recreational lexicon, so they have chosen to avoid it, even some who have been training at the Cove for 30 years.
Rose, who used to come from Pacific Beach to the Cove to swim anywhere from one to ten miles in a day, is now swimming at La Jolla Shores. And so is Cleveland, who has made it across the English Channel four times with no wetsuit and without stopping — including a two-way trip, from England to France and back, nine years ago. Once a channel swimming coach, she used to swim six times a week at the Cove, for four or five hours at a time.
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.
According to Mark McPherson, the department’s chief of land and water quality, the one-day posting near the Cove shoreline in October warned of a higher than acceptable level — measuring 164 points, or 60 above the state standard of 104 — of the bacteria enterococcus, found in human and animal feces. Enterococcus can cause ear, urinary tract, pelvic and other types of infections, and it’s an indicator of more dangerous but undetectable pathogens.
“It tends to last longer in the environment,” he explained. “It’s indicative of fecal matter from a warm-blooded animal that can make you sick and can cause a health issue.”
Bill Harris, the city’s Transportation and Stormwater Department spokesman, called the sea lion waste “a pervasive problem” at the Cove, noting that it was particularly potent in the first 20 feet of water, where the brown stuff floating there “is not kelp, it’s doody. It’s a slurry of digested anchovies.”
The water-quality postings, which are made within 24 hours of the water sampling, are simply “swim at your own risk” warnings, he said.
In fact, when one of the lifeguards on duty was asked about the October posting a couple of weeks later, he said he knew nothing of it.
McPherson downplayed the recent test result. “It’s above state standards, and we would post for that. But it could be much, much higher,” he said. “If it were sewage, it would be in the thousands.”
Even though swimmers swim at the Cove year-round, the county doesn’t test there during the winter months because of budget constraints, he said. And from April 1 through October 31, the tests are only conducted once a week in the middle of the beach in knee-deep water, where the swimmers get in and many children play.
Asked if the recent posting and burgeoning public-health concerns at the Cove might prompt further and more frequent year-round testing there, McPherson answered in an email that, “We will evaluate whether we will add the Cove to our winter monitoring [sites.]”
“We haven’t seen an issue at La Jolla Cove based on the weekly sample we’ve been doing,” he said. “That’s not to say there’s never bacteria there…. We have not seen a chronic issue there.”
This is in contrast to the Children’s Pool, he said, “where, if the seals are present and we sample, the bacterial results are very high and that’s why we’ve posted a chronic posting there.”
Based on Cleveland’s experience with the sea lions’ fecal clouds, she said the county’s results sounded fishy, and she wonders if testing closer to the rocks, where the sea lions haul out, would produce different results.
“I don’t care what the county says about the water quality. It’s making people sick,” she said, adding that her fellow swimmers are sharing stories of getting intestinal bugs and upper respiratory and ear infections, after swimming there.
“It’s the same thing surfers were getting before Donna Frye was a councilwoman. This was a long time ago. Now the same thing is happening at the Cove.”
That said, Cleveland acknowledges that some are not as concerned as she is. “Most of them have buried their head in the sand,” she said. “They like it. They’re going to swim there anyway.”
Richard Walker is one of them, even after a recent encounter with a large floating cloud of sea lion feces, about six feet wide and several feet deep. He said he rolled over onto his back until he got through it. He acknowledged being “slightly” concerned about the potential hazards, but “not so much that I’ll quit swimming there until it does have an impact on my health.
“I’m probably still in a majority in that regard, but perhaps a decreasing majority. I know more and more people who aren’t swimming at the Cove anymore or who aren’t coming into La Jolla anymore because of that,” he said. “My thinking on this is, until it gets so bad that it starts making you sick, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s my flu shot, if you will. It’s an immune-response builder.”
Jim Poirier, a 67-year-old retired La Jolla High chemistry teacher, remains determined to continue his morning regimen of 30 years at the Cove or at the Children’s Pool.
A member of a swimming group dubbed the Dawn Patrol, Poirier said he doesn’t mind the sea lions. Although he agreed that they have become more aggressive, he just tries to ignore them.
“They would come up to you and kind of nose you. Some people are very afraid of that. I’m not afraid of it, no, no. We go down at 6:30 in the morning. There are four or five of them kind of making a barrier — it’s like they don’t want you to swim out in the water. We just swim through them.”
The next Children’s Pool
Though he won’t stop swimming the Cove, Poirier is concerned by the sea lions’ growing numbers. “They’re fine, but I should be able to walk on the beach and swim in it. I mean, excuse me, people are more important than sea lions.”
What worries him, Cleveland, and other swimmers is that public access to the Cove will ultimately be shut down by the same animal protesters who have spent years fighting to protect the harbor seals’ access to Casa Beach, an area known as the Children’s Pool just around the corner, where Poirier said elderly female protesters have harassed him and cursed at him as he tried to take a relaxing swim.
“The seal-huggers will come over and protect the sea lions, not that they need it,” Cleveland predicted. “It’s another nightmare, and the city with its non-attentiveness to the issue at hand will cause another avalanche of problems, just like at Children’s Pool.”
Dr. Jane Reldan, spokeswoman for La Jolla Friends of the Seals, said she is only involved with the harbor seals at Casa Beach. She didn’t know of anyone leading any activist efforts to protect sea lions at the Cove. Yet, anyway.
“There are only seals there, and there is no smell,” she said of the Children’s Pool. “I am not involved with the sea lions at La Jolla Cove.... The only pinnipeds at La Jolla Cove are sea lions.”
Some Cove swimmers disagree with this point. They say they’re still seeing seals swimming under them, noting that the smaller creatures may be too small to haul out on the rocks with the much larger sea lions.
A group called the Marine Mammal Policy Institute seems to have taken an interest in the Cove, posting this note on interim mayor Todd Gloria’s Facebook page in September, before the city council took up the issue of whether to close the Children’s Pool for pupping season: “Beach closures in San Diego for pinniped needs will have to follow closure of the Children’s Pool in La Jolla for Pacific harbor seal pupping season.... Other pinnipeds use beaches for pupping in San Diego such as California sea lions at the La Jolla Cove. California sea lion pupping season is all year so beaches like the La Jolla Cove will have to be closed year round. This is only fair.”
(Although a few female sea lions have given birth at the Cove, marine-mammal biologist DeAngelis said, the majority are still pupping at the Channel Islands rookery.)
But if the prolonged acrimonious and divisive debate over people’s vs. pinnipeds’ access to the beach and the water at the Children’s Pool is any indication, this recent turn of events at the Cove could be the start of a new battleground on this issue.
A complicated, smelly, dangerous morass
Either way, it’s clear that the sea lion population explosion has evolved into a complicated, smelly, dangerous, and costly morass for which city officials contend they are “working hard” to find a comprehensive solution.
But the merchants, swimmers, and other locals say the city’s progress is creeping along at the routine bureaucratic pace. Now on the third mayoral administration that has pledged to fix the odor problem, which has made national news and has dampened business profits, proprietors of the high-end hotels, restaurants, and shops within sniffing distance of the Cove are growing more restless.
“Our frustration is each one says, ‘We’ll address it.’ We just keep picking up the pieces of the previous one,” said Mark Dibella, managing director of the La Valencia hotel, referring to the La Jolla Merchant Association committee that has been trying to work with the city to find a solution. “No one has solved it.”
Dibella said Todd Gloria and La Jolla’s councilwoman, Sherri Lightner, were invited to tour the area, have lunch, and experience the odor, but they never came.
Asked to address the public health and safety concerns and criticisms about his alleged inattention, Gloria issued this written statement on November 20: “We’re working diligently to solve a problem that’s clearly impacting businesses in La Jolla as well as the overall quality of life. We’re seeking a solution that balances environmental concerns with the rights of La Jolla citizens to be able to walk outside without holding their noses.”
During an interview on KUSI the night of the special mayoral election, Gloria mentioned “the smell in La Jolla” as one of the primary issues facing him as interim mayor.
Dibella said merchants are also annoyed that Lightner, who is the council president pro tem, hasn’t been more responsive to their concerns.
“Our biggest frustration with the players, the one constant of this administration, is Councilwoman Lightner,” Dibella said. “I have yet to see her come out swinging, saying, ‘I am here to help La Jolla, I am working on solutions.’ We just don’t see her. We don’t see her representation; we don’t see her interest in it.”
Sheila Fortune, executive director of the local merchants’ association, agreed. “It’s gotten people really upset because they don’t feel like [Lightner] is engaged and cares about the community and she lives in La Jolla.... The only time we saw her here was in June, when Mayor Filner called the press conference [about the public health emergency]…. I think her absence has really angered a lot of people. I’ve, quite frankly, sent emails to her assistant, ‘I’m trying to hold people off, this is becoming a major media blitz,’ and she still wouldn’t come.”
Lightner did not respond to several requests for a phone interview for this story. Her spokeswoman, Jill Esterbrooks, said the councilwoman also did not want to respond to these specific constituent criticisms.
“As you know, Sherri is a long-time La Jolla resident who has been actively involved in the community for dozens of years,” she wrote in an email. “She understands the urgency of the current Cove situation and the impact the odor is having on the quality of life for residents as well as La Jolla’s reputation as a world-class tourist destination. She’s a strong supporter for the protection of public views and physical access to our beaches and coastline, and will continue to work with the Mayor and City Staff to address the odor problems and coastal access issues.”
Esterbrooks also contended that the recent media attention to which Fortune referred is actually being generated by the merchants themselves.
For the past couple of years, the merchants say they’ve been trying to work behind the scenes to resolve this issue — without going to the media. “It is a double-edged sword to even speak about this because part of our group’s effort is to work with the city directly,” Dibella said. “We didn’t want to publicize — because we’re in the hospitality business — that it stinks in La Jolla.”
But, he added, they have run out of patience.
(This story was in no way generated by any business owner. Its genesis was the October 17 water-quality posting. As a Cove swimmer since junior high school at Muirlands in La Jolla, I have personally witnessed the recent proliferation of sea lions, have experienced some of the same fears as the swimmers quoted in this story, and have had at least two meals at George’s at the Cove ruined by the smell. Even though it’s one of my favorite restaurants, I’m sorry to say I won’t be going back until the smell is gone or at least mitigated.)
As awkward as their meeting was this past summer with Filner, Dibella said, at least he met with them personally and something positive came out of it — an executive order and declaration of a health emergency that deemed the avian guano “more than just a nuisance; it is a public health hazard” and finally got the cliffs sprayed this summer. Sea lion waste was not cited specifically because, at the time, experts viewed bird guano as the primary culprit causing the odor.
After Filner was forced to resign in August over sexual harassment charges and the smell problem had still not dissipated, Dibella posted a plea on Gloria’s Facebook page September 11, complaining about the problem and Lightner in particular: “We are trying to pick up the pieces with Sherri (she is less than committed) and the contractor.”
Dibella was pleased to receive this immediate response: “Mark, City staff are working on this problem. We anticipate additional clean up measures to be performed as soon as nesting season is over, which I’m told should be very soon. I’m always happy to meet with constituents. Please call my office to schedule an appointment.”
A second round of spraying ensued in late September, and then came the sad realization that sea lion poop was really to blame.
After some scheduling delays, Dibella and a committee from the La Jolla Merchants Association were invited to the mayor’s office on October 30 to what they thought would be a meeting with the mayor and, perhaps, Lightner as well. They were disappointed to walk into a room with more than 20 people, mostly city staffers, but neither elected official was there. Just like congressman Scott Peters, Gloria and Lightner sent representatives.
“That just really told us again, ‘You’re not very important here,’” Fortune said.
Asked if Lightner is tired of dealing with emotional folks on either side of the pinniped issue after years of debate over the Children’s Pool, Esterbrooks said there’s really no way for an elected official to win at such meetings.
“Whenever you get all the parties in the room, there is no compromise,” she said.
Rather than coming to La Jolla himself, Gloria sent his aides Alex Roth and Lena Lewis, who “physically went there and explored the whole area and smelled the smells,” Roth said. He said he and Lewis attended the October 30 meeting as well as a La Jolla merchants’ meeting.
“The idea that we’re sitting on our hands doing nothing is just not accurate,” Roth said. “We’ve also made clear to them: We understand how serious this issue is and we’re aggressively trying to find an answer.… You have to search for these solutions one step at a time.”
The merchants’ suggested solution was for the city to allow people to walk around the cliff areas above the Cove — “sharing the bluffs” — as they did before a white wooden fence was erected along the sidewalk about a decade ago, when there was no smell. After the fence went up, huge numbers of birds began to roost there, allowing avian guano to accumulate, and sea lions began to haul out on the rocks.
After doing some research, the city came back with a memo stating that it was, in fact, legal for people to walk around those areas, despite the fence and the signs that read, “Unstable cliffs, danger, stay back.”
So, for now, Plan A consists of waiting to see whether this renewed public access to those bluffs — which is only possible by climbing over the fence — will ultimately help motivate the sea lions and birds to relocate. In mid-November, the city attorney was asked to investigate whether it was legal to put a hole or gate in the fence so people wouldn’t have to climb over it, and on December 31, the city installed that gate.
“If plan A doesn’t work, it’s on to plan B,” Roth said. “If plan B doesn’t work it’s on to plan C, and so forth.”
“Every possible solution is on the table,” Roth said. Asked to elaborate, he declined to discuss any other specifics the city is considering.
Although people are allowed to roam around on the bluffs, city officials warn that it is illegal to harass, harm, or “flush” the birds or sea lions, which means to purposely cause them to fly away or jump into the water.
“‘Flush’ is a pretty active word,” said Harris, the stormwater spokesman who has been involved with the Children’s Pool issue for years. “There’s a big difference between ambling down to look at the view and running down the hill, arms akimbo.”
If lifeguards see behavior they believe violates the law, Wurts, the lifeguard chief, said they are trained to give verbal warnings first.
“Lifeguards in a situation like this, we’re going to almost always gain compliance through public education first, by trying to tell people ahead of time what they can do and what they shouldn’t do,” Wurts said. If lifeguards see “a specific act of violence,” he added, that could result in a citation or even an arrest by police.
Such citations would fall under the section of the municipal code titled “mistreatment of animals,” which states that it is “unlawful to take, kill, wound, disturb, or maltreat any bird or animal, either wild or domesticated, unless the same shall have been declared noxious by the City Manager and a permit issued for the killing of such noxious animals.” Such a violation would be a misdemeanor, although it could be reduced to an infraction at the discretion of the City Attorney’s Office, Wurts said.
Asked about the potential for conflict and confusion posed by the city’s new public-access position, Wurts said, “There’s no effort to send a mixed message. There are a variety of scenarios that present themselves. What would be unfair is to create [an impression that], there are always hundreds of seals there all the time…. There may be other times when there are no seals, and…it may be by having people there, that maybe the seals would select a different place to haul out on.”
There does seem to be some confusion already, however, as evidenced by recent events. Case in point: After attending the October 30 meeting, George Hauer, the owner of George’s at the Cove, described by Dibella as “a bit of a maverick,” decided to test the city’s new position by jumping the fence on November 1.
Hauer promptly called Dibella on his cell phone and told him that after only five minutes, all the birds had flown away and the sea lions had jumped back into the water. Someone was watching and videotaping his jaunt, because it later ended up on the TV news.
Five days later, Hauer jumped the fence again, only this time, as he wrote in an email to Dibella to forward to city officials, “the reaction was significantly different. Within minutes the [life]guard on duty called me off the bluffs. He and three other lifeguards politely asked me not to do this again, as it turns out, for good reason. Within seconds of my going over into the bluffs the 911 calls began to deluge the station, creating an emergency atmosphere at the Cove. Then three police officers arrived to explain to me what happens when an incursion takes place.”
Hauer noted that all city staff he encountered “were enormously respectful and well informed,” but “as a logical person, it seems odd to me that I commanded the attention of seven of San Diego’s finest because I walked on the bluffs.”
Since then, other people have been seen walking within the fenced area without incident.
Esterbrooks, Lightner’s spokeswoman, said the councilwoman supports removing part of the fence or installing a gate to ease public access to the cliffs.
Esterbrooks tried to downplay the odorous situation and the business losses the merchants are claiming. She acknowledged that although she hasn’t eaten a meal recently along the Cove area, she has driven by Brockton Villa, a restaurant on Coast Boulevard, right above the area where the sea lions haul out, which Dibella called “ground zero” for the smell. She said she saw people inside, and “no one was throwing up their meal.”
The restaurant owner, Megan Heine, did not respond to a request for comment, but a woman answering the phone there said it did not smell inside.
Tripadvisor.com reviews for La Valencia and George’s at the Cove, both of which sit on Prospect Street overlooking the Cove, reflect complaints about the stench, which back up the merchants’ claim.
A two-star (out of a possible five) review for George’s, posted on November 4, states, “I love it here, been here and have recommended it many times. Sadly, this was my last time here and in La Jolla restaurants near the cove until the smell from the cove is gone. It’s unimaginable that the restaurant association alone does not force the city for faster action with this problem. I’d burn piñon pots or mesquite on the patios to cover the smell, but you have to find a way to disguise this ugliness. Get creative and restore this great treasure.”
A recent three-star review for La Valencia states, “During our stay, there was a horrible, fishy smell from the ocean, not a clue came from the hotel, or perhaps a glass of wine to take away the smell. Great location, beautiful view. Second room was lovely, but too many negatives in order to enjoy the stay.”
In both cases, the establishments apparently told patrons that the smell was seasonal or that it was just rotting kelp.
To quantify the financial problem, Dibella said that on one particular day and from one particular guest, the smell cost La Valencia, an 87-year-old historic hotel that has recently spent millions on renovations, about $6000 in room revenue. On this particular day, he said, boxer Floyd Mayweather booked two villas and six rooms. Mayweather checked in and, 15 minutes later, checked out all his guests.
“We’ll have guests leave a day early,” Dibella said. “We’ll have guests get off the terrace and just not dine on our oceanfront deck because of the smell. We’ve had potential wedding bride and grooms tell us they aren’t going to book at the hotel because of the smell.”
Dibella said that this isn’t only an economic problem for La Valencia and its 220 employees, or even just the merchants in the village of La Jolla, but for the region as a whole.
“When you market San Diego, let’s face it, La Jolla is the Beverly Hills of San Diego in terms of its hospitality image,” he said.
Smelly... and loud
In addition to calls about the smell, the biggest complaint DeAngelis (the federal marine biologist) receives from La Jolla residents calling her Long Beach office is about the sea lions barking.
“The residents in the high-rises — the noise carries really far up,” she said. “It travels through the streets, basically, so when it gets going, it gets quite loud. There’s really nothing you can do. That’s sea lions being sea lions.”
Under the federal Marine Mammals Protection Act, adopted in 1972 after a period when the populations of seals and sea lions were decimated because of “sealing” (hunting), the pinnipeds are still protected animals.
Last year, DeAngelis said, they saw an unusually high mortality rate of sea lion pups dying off and showing up sick and malnourished in rehab facilities. Researchers are baffled and don’t know why.
Nonetheless, she said, the population of sea lions is increasing at a rate higher in California than anywhere else in the United States. Where there were only about 10,000 of them here in the 1970s, there are now an estimated 300,000.
DeAngelis said city officials do have some options available under the law, which she believes would be preferable to letting people roam around an unstable cliff area and which she would be happy to help walk the city through.
Under the “Protection of health and welfare of the public” section of the law, 109HB, she said, “They could non-lethally deter or have those animals removed from that area and that would be a safer alternative than, say, have a bunch of tourists or local folks running up and down those rocks.” She noted that the city wouldn’t need to get a permit for this alternative.
Although the presence of people on the bluffs and rocks could temporarily move some of the animals during the daytime, she said, they might still come back at night “and make a mess.”
You would have to “convince the animals it’s not a good place to haul out anymore. And you’re going to have some animals that will keep trying,” she said. “I’d imagine that some of those animals are well established.”
Rose, the marathon swimmer who also works as an architect, said she, too, would be willing to help. She volunteered to build a model to help the city figure out a more comprehensive approach to dealing with the sea lions than the less-than-successful attempts to keep the peace at the Children’s Pool, where she said “we had a whole lot of unintended consequences.”
“We do need to do something about it. We really need to look at the entire environment,” she said. “Before we mess with the sea lions we’d better understand [the systems].”
“Swimmers want to know what they can do to get the city to take some action,” she said.
On December 19, a group called Citizens for Odor Abatement, headed by Hauer, filed a lawsuit against the city, state and Gloria, deeming the odor a public nuisance and asking the court to force action to deal with it. The group wants the fence — which the group believes was erected illegally — to be removed entirely.
“Just telling people privately that they are allowed to climb the fence if they want to is just silly,” attorney Bryan Pease wrote in an email. “Nobody is going to do that. The city needs to tear down the illegal fence.”
The mayor’s office had no comment on the lawsuit other than to note that the decision to erect the gate was made independently, two days before the suit was filed.