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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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.