Various Authors 8:30 a.m., Nov. 17
- Community Blog
- Diary of a SealWatcher: Saving the Seals at Casa Beach
Diary of a SealWatcher
by Colleen Cochran
I have yet to uncover a convincing argument as to why it is important to give La Jolla’s Casa Beach to humans, but I do know why it is important to give that beach to the seals. As it happens, this particular stretch of beach is critical to the survival of San Diego’s small harbor seal colony. And the seals are invaluable not only because they are an integral part of our planet’s fragile ecosystem, but simply and obviously in and of themselves.
Harbor seals selected Casa Beach as a resting and breeding ground for thousands of years before people settled in Southern California. Their nearest alternate mainland rookery is 170 miles away, just south of Ventura County. Today San Diego offers 73 miles of recreational beaches. The survival of the harbor seals depends upon a specific, highly contested 200 feet.
Knowledge of these facts, reinforced by a few nights of reading Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax with 7-year old daughter, Kylee, spurred me to become a SealWatch supporter. After the Once-ler eliminated the Truffula Trees, Swomee-Swans, and Brown Bar-ba-loots in their Bar-ba-loot suits, the Lorax wrote a word on a rock, the word “Unless.” At the conclusion of the book, the word of the Lorax became perfectly clear. “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Kylee and I decided that we were going to care “a whole awful lot.” We teamed up with SealWatch, a grassroots, non-profit organization affiliated with the Animal Protection and Rescue League. SealWatch’s mission is “to maintain a daily presence at Casa Beach to protect the La Jolla seals from harassment and work on creating a marine mammal park on site.”
December 5, 2010
Our first day as SealWatch volunteers. It was a chilly, hazy late afternoon when we arrived at the cliff-top sidewalk that overlooked the nook called Casa Beach. I immediately stepped over to a table with signage reading, “Share the Beach!” There I announced enthusiastically that we were ready to lend our support in whichever way needed, and asked where I could find Dorota Valli, the woman slated to give me my volunteer assignment.
Immediately the white-haired man behind the table puffed out his chest and with acid-tongue stated, “Find her yourself.”
Once the sting from his words subsided, I scanned the literature on the table. Pamphlets stated that people should not be denied from using the beach. Animals and people must share. We had stumbled upon the opposition.
I located the correct site, where Dorota, a slim, serious-looking brunette, charged me with handing out flyers reading, “What You Can Do to Help the Seals!” This veteran seal advocate gave me a post on a landing atop the dingy concrete steps leading down to the beach. If I noticed people heading down, I was to explain that close human contact distresses the seals, and might even cause them to abandon this critical site. I was to ask them to stay at least 75 feet away or, better yet, simply to observe the seals from the sea wall or steps.
About fifty hulking, peppery gray creatures rested on the beach. A few were wide-eyed and fidgeting awkwardly. Seeing them, I realized the significance of my responsibility. I was the appointed guardian of their necessary sleep.
Truth be told, momentous endeavors tend to involve long stretches of boredom broken by a few minutes of chaos. Ask any soldier or police officer. Dull minutes crept by without our having anything to do. Crowds came, but most people never made a step toward the beach. They came to see the seals, and the best views were from atop the sea wall and steps. Meanwhile Kylee and I counted the seals on the beach, pointed out the ones coming to shore from deeper waters, and played “Guess Who” to while away the time.
Occasionally, some people, usually tourists, would start to walk down the steps toward the beach. Their goal was, typically, a snapshot to send home that said, “Look at me in San Diego next to a seal!” When I gave them my spiel about how such behavior distresses the seals, they all obliged and returned to a neutral distance.
I was immensely heartened to find these visitors so rational, so willing to put aside their own interests in order to protect the seals. So I was not much fazed at having to endure a little hostility from the white-haired man above me on the sidewalk. I heard him advising passersby to “ignore that radical.” What’s more, he said my bringing my child to the beach constituted “child abuse.”
After a while, two more anti-seal activists made themselves known. They stepped down to my perch to inform me that Casa Beach should be filled with people, and moreover that I was preventing this occurrence. Much as I would have liked to accept responsibility, I could not take credit for keeping people away from a place to which they never wanted to go in the first place.
Neither woman would state her name. One, whose weathered face made me question whether I had applied enough sunscreen, held a video camera inches from my face, an act I found more perplexing than annoying. The other gal, who immediately made me think of Miss Jane Hathaway, Mr. Drysdale’s secretary in The Beverly Hillbillies, began yelling to the crowd, “It’s your right to use this beach, don’t let her tell you it’s illegal! You go right down there and enjoy it!”
Now this degree of acrimony did surprise me. Shouting? Lies about what I was saying? I was, of course, aware that controversy surrounded the seals, and I knew it had something to do with red tape regarding a trust designating Casa Beach for use as a children’s wading pool. But for some reason, I thought this issue was being handled in an adult manner within the courts. Silly me. I never imagined that the anti-seal cause could inspire such fervent, angry followers.
I asked them why they felt so passionately that people should use this beach. “Miss Hathaway” told me that she felt very strongly that it’s our right as Americans to go where we want, when we want, and she strongly objected to anyone trying to limit her use of public property. Furthermore, the terms of the trust Ellen Browning Scripps created should not be violated.
“How would you like it if you created a trust for your daughter and someone altered it?” she asked smugly.
I was advised to educate myself via some of the Web sites dedicated to retaining the beach as a children’s pool. These sites, she was sure, would prove so enlightening that my views toward the seals would be profoundly altered. “Seals really are very dirty,” she added. I promised I would check out the Web sites.
Kylee and I decided to continue on as SealWatch volunteers. Now I carry a picket sign that reads, “I would like wildlife to exist in my child’s future. Let the seals rest undisturbed.” Every few minutes or so during our watch one of the seal observers gives a “thumbs up” sign or walks down to say, “thank you for being here.”
Occasionally, seal opponents say mean things to me, which upsets Kylee very much. When we once observed some people purposely send the seals flushing into the water, Kylee cried. We persevere, and at the end of each stint we feel pleased by the fact that we helped ensure that a number of seals, many now very pregnant, were able to enjoy a nice long nap.
As I promised, I did some research on opposing views, and unfortunately for “Miss Hathaway’s” certitude I was left all the more confounded as to why the creation of a sanctuary has been given short shrift. My research made me all the more resolute about protecting the seals.
“Miss Hathaway” was incorrect in her statement that Ellen Browning Scripps created a legal trust marking children as the beneficiary of a sector of beach and waters. In 1931, Ms. Scripps donated money for the construction of a sea wall. Her benevolent purpose was to provide a breakwater in the front of the Casa de Mañana Hotel that would create a barrier between reef and ocean to facilitate recreational swimming. (The Casa de Mañana Hotel was sold in 1953, and reopened as the retirement community it remains today.)
Construction of the sea wall was completed on February 10, 1931. However, the City of San Diego lacked the legal authority to authorize construction of this wall until June 15, 1931, when a trust was created, or to be more exact, a statutory public grant between the State of California and the City of San Diego. Statute No. 937 granted Casa Beach to the City of San Diego:
“That said lands shall be devoted exclusively to  public park,  bathing pool for children,  parkway,  highway,  playground and  recreational purposes and  to such other uses as may be incident to, or convenient for the full enjoyment of, such purposes.”
Arguably, the wording of this grant could have been interpreted broadly to enable, say, a public marine park. That would certainly qualify as a recreational purpose and even a playground, in my book. Would children have to bathe in the pool? Wouldn’t it be sufficient under the terms of the trust if children simply observed the wonderful harbor seals in their ancient habitat? Anyway, I have not yet heard anyone clamoring that the city’s failure to turn Casa Beach into a parkway or highway violated the terms of the Tidelands Grant.
Opponents of the seals always try the heartstring tug. The beach is supposed be for those poor little children who will never ever have the opportunity to learn to swim unless they use the waters off Casa Beach. But every week parents and their children flock to Casa Beach not to swim, but to see the seals. Children want seals!
The San Diego Council of Divers, a group hoping to hold scuba diving classes on this beach, attempts to rouse sympathies for the disabled. Its Web site says this particular diving site is needed for “newer divers, smaller divers, divers who have limited mobility, and divers who would find a long surface swim burdensome.” I sympathize; as it happens I spent several years working with children with special needs. But I don’t think child waders or disabled scuba divers take priority in this issue.
It seems children’s pool advocates and diving class proponents make up the largest segment of folks who want Casa Beach to be for humans. Another faction is comprised of those who simply dislike being told they cannot go somewhere or do something. And then there are those who dislike the seals because they poop. According to the Animal Protection and Rescue League/ SealWatch Web site, “their feces, far from polluting, nourishes the off shore kelp beds that support abundant sea life.” Even if the seals’ excrement was a pollutant, could it compare to the pollution of mankind?
Given the slim subsets against the seals, how is it that a seal sanctuary has yet to be created? Yet, at every turn, provision of 200 feet of sand for the seals has been stymied. In 2005, a superior court judge ruled against the City of San Diego, in favor of swimmer Valerie O’Sullivan in her lawsuit to restore Casa Beach for human use. Apparently, the forces of nature had been too dynamic for this judge’s liking. Extra sand had built up on the beach since the early 1900’s, rendering the sea wall ineffective and actually causing dangerous swimming conditions. And the seals were thriving again, and pooping. The City was ordered to dredge the beach of the extra sand that had accumulated since 1941 and to disperse the seals. A state appeals court affirmed this ruling.
On July 20, 2009, Superior Court Judge Yuri Hofmann ordered the city to comply with the court order, this compliance to be accomplished by eliminating the seals by use of an amplified dog barking sound. For real? Thankfully these events never came to pass. Hours after Judge Hofmann’s order, former Governor Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 428 amending the Tidelands Grant, so that the San Diego City Council had discretion to designate the area as a seal sanctuary.
It seems, “Miss Hathaway’s” attentiveness to Miss Scripp’s wishes and the terms of the original Tidelands Grant were misplaced. This grant issue has become moot. On January 1, 2010, the new law officially went into effect, listing a “marine mammal park for the enjoyment and educational benefit of children” as a permissible use of Casa Beach. But the fate of the seals has not improved.
It looked to be bettering on May 17, 2010, when the San Diego City Council voted for closing Casa Beach during pupping season and for a year-round rope barrier. Then the La Jolla Community Planning Association appealed the decision to the San Diego Planning Commission. On December 9, 2010, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny the year-round rope barrier.
Presently, a rope, hanging scantily on poles, serves as a guideline for proper seal watching, rather than a barrier. And it is permitted only during pupping season (December 15 – May 15). Buffoons may legally cross this rope, and they do.
Casa Beach has been home to the seals for centuries. Why harbor seals continue to choose this beach as their home is unknown. Their population once numbered in the hundreds of thousands; by the time Ms. Scripps was building her wall they had been hunted almost to extinction. It was not until passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, prohibiting the killing of seals, that their numbers could begin to revive. Today, there are approximately 45,000 of these mammals in all of California, and the more passive, but still fatal, human aggression that leads to habitat loss is now the greatest threat to their continued survival.
Sunday, February 6, 2011
Casa Beach’s first baby seal pup of the 2011 season was born on February 3rd. I stood atop the shabby concrete steps leading down to this beach, tranquilized by the sight of a mother caring for her new baby in the shallow waters. The baby clung to the mother’s back, their sleek dark heads bobbing up and down out of the glittering tides.
Sometimes the puppy sneaked off for a solo swim. Mom frantically gave chase, and then reemerged with the pup once again safe on her back. I considered their handless, cumbersome bodies, and marveled over how the mother managed to secure the baby rearward.
Seals swam about under the late afternoon sun, poking their heads from the water from time to time. Cautiously, a few of them emerged from the sea and flapped their lumbering bodies onto the sand, until some 35 of these gray, bulky creatures were resting strewn upon the shore.
The sight would have been idyllic, save for the lone group of three men and one prepubescent boy deliberately adulterating the scene. I’d seen them the last few weekends: one stocky balding guy, one young guy in Baywatch-red swim trunks, a stooped man who likes to play guitar on the beach, and the boy child. They would squat on this beach from early morning until early evening.
Today, they had a big bright blue umbrella, and spread out under and around it were beach chairs, towels, several coolers filled with food and drink, and a radio. Remnants of their daylong feast were in view – empty sandwich wrappers and cans of beer and soda.
And they had a Frisbee. When they weren’t chowing down, these men could not get enough of this Frisbee. When they disported themselves, their already spacious squatting area expanded to encompass an ever-greater stretch of beach.
Also, these guys smiled incessantly. They had to smile, for they were on stage. Atop the sea wall or standing respectfully behind the beach rope was their audience. Nevermind that these people came to see the seals, not this band of merry men. These were protesters with a drama to perform. Their message to the crowd was, “See how much fun we are having! Come join us!”
Sunday, February 13, 2011
I learned that the second seal of the pupping season (December 15 through May 15) was born a few nights ago. After-birth was discovered near the sea wall, but, as yet, no newborn has been spotted. Fellow SealWatch volunteers speculate that it may have been a stillbirth.
At least six stillbirths occurred this year, and it is conjectured they are the result of undue stress levels and inadequate rest. Seals often avoid Casa Beach when humans are present. If they do come onto the beach to rest despite human presence, I doubt they get the good placid sleep they require. How can they, if they are always poised for a quick get away? And if a mother is separated from her pup because of a disturbance from beachgoers, the event is often fatal for the newborn.
I’m no seal expert, but I know they are a skittish group. On the beach, they won’t even let another seal get too close. Save touching between mother and child, if a seal accidentally touches another, a barking quibble often ensues. At the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, harbor seals are typically quarantined from other patients and out of public view due their extreme sensitivity to stress.
So when some anti-seal folks tout the stance, “The beach should be for both people and seals to enjoy. Let’s share the beach,” I know such outcome is a fairytale. Shared use means human dominance; it an underhanded code for forcing the seals to abandon the beach.
Yet even the San Diego Parks and Recreation Department promotes this myth of shared use. Posted signs at the entrance of the beach read, “Share the beach with the seals, but keep a safe distance.” The signs profess the unattainable, “ The beach and waters are open for public enjoyment. This is also a home and resting place for Harbor Seals.” They provide a typical political response, and like all such politic answers, solve nothing. In fact, this doublespeak is the sole cause of chaos at Casa Beach.
But my Frisbee-tossing anti-seal activists were not advocating shared use. They simply aimed to keep seals off of the beach, and they were successful. The three men, minus the boy, set up camp again this Sunday, and this time smack in the center of the beach. They grilled hamburgers, intermittently rousing themselves for another of those full-beach games of Frisbee.
Now and then a seal swam into the cove from the deeper ocean. I saw a head pop out here and there from the shallows. Each seal surveyed the terrain, but none dared venture on to the beach.
Eventually, one exhausted seal cautiously emerged onto the sand. It attempted to reach a mass of large rocks that, while located in the water, were too difficult to access due to low tide. Those rocks could be reached from the beach though, and the seal sidled its massive body over to them, taking a path furthest from the men. I watched it travel laboriously from sand out to the rocks, where finally it slumped its bulk down in relief.
Bad move. The Frisbee was thrown awry, landing on the small rocks just beneath the seal’s rock. “Red-shorts” went to retrieve it, and the frightened seal heaved itself from on high into the water.
Crowds come to watch the seals openly jeered from behind the rope barrier, from up on the sea wall, and on the steps. I heard the word, “Selfish,” yelled by several. Dorota, up at the SealWatch table, yelled into her megaphone, “Please, please stay back from the seals!” Red-shorts, smiling, and went back to his game.
February 20, 2011
More than 50 harbor seals were on the beach today. They stayed, despite the presence of two of the men protesters, and the boy. My watch almost over, I readied myself to depart for my late-afternoon Von’s run. I stayed on when I noticed something unusual was happening.
One seal broke away from the pack, waddling to an area along a wall just beneath all the seal observers. Within moments a pool of blood stained the sand beneath her. Seconds later, the 12th baby of the pupping season entered the world.
The crowd watched in awe, absolutely silent. Many edged closer to witness the view of newborn and mother greet each other. The prevailing mood was nothing short of reverent.
Then the protester boy broke forward and climbed atop a large rock near the new mother. I wondered if he was finally sharing in the general sense of wonder. But as I saw him standing erect there, towering above the crowd behind and looming over the creature that minutes earlier had given birth, I recognized his position and posture as essentially defiant. While not a mind reader, I don’t think I’m far off the mark to suppose his thoughts to be, “I will stand where I choose, and no one can stop me. This is my beach. People reign supreme.”
February 27, 2011
Today I met Karen Buck, who makes the trip from Lake Elsinore to La Jolla most weekends simply to observe the seals. Introducing herself to me, she told me that, just before Kylee and I arrived, the two protester-men walked, with all their beach gear in hand, directly toward the seals, sending more than 15 fear-stricken pups and their mothers, as well as a seal-cow who had been in labor all day, scrambling back into the waters.
She was furious, “Anyone who had any compassion at all for nature simply would not do that. What a senseless act of selfishness! It really, really upsets me, because there is no place else like this to see seals.”
I was furious too. And so today I decided to actually go talk to these men, even though my colleagues had warned that it would be a wasted effort. I just couldn’t let go of the notion that there must be some rational basis for their actions. Otherwise, why all this enormous effort on their part? Otherwise, how is it that the legal and legislative powers that be would have sided so often with their cause?
I approached the stocky guy, who I since learned is named Dan Byrnes, and said, “I have been coming here weekend after weekend to protect the seals, and I want to understand what brings you to this beach.”
“Why shouldn’t we use this beach? It’s not illegal. We are not hurting anyone.”
“Why don’t you use one of the many other beaches?”
“Why should we? We like this one.”
“Don’t you care about the seals?”
“They can be here, that’s fine with us. And if they want to go someplace else, that’s fine with us too.”
And he started to name various places where he believed that seals could go. I left him, still unable to grasp any validity in his stance, any logical *reason for it.
Back at my post, I found I was just in time to watch another pregnant seal making the lonely ramble toward the bluff wall. Another birth was coming. This time the vigil was a long one.
The crowd too noticed that a birth was imminent. They clustered onto the steps to get a closer look. Then one woman, absolutely giddy about the prospect of watching a seal give birth, strode across the sand to get a close-up picture of the event.
I begged her, “Please stay back from that seal.” She ignored me. The seal looked at her with large, terror-stricken eyes, and at the growing crowd gathered on the steps and with me on the landing. I felt guilty for being there. It occurred to me that maybe none of us should be there at all. The seal then raised its head toward the sky, and gave a cry. It seemed to me a cry of fear, sorrow, and the pain of childbirth rolled into one.
Fortunately, Ranger Randy Hawley was on scene. He was hired by the San Diego Parks and Recreation Department to keep the peace and protect seals from harassment, but only works a couple of hours on weekends. He told the woman to stand back. She yielded to his authority, and rejoined the crowd.
Mother seal and her newborn pup sat dazed for a few minutes. And then as quickly as was physically possible for them, they moved down to the water’s edge, as far from the people as they could get.
Another healthy seal birth, the twenty-first of the season, was great reward for Kylee and me as we finished our volunteer effort. And then, just as we were leaving Casa Beach, we saw yet another gratifying result of the fact that we, and SealWatch, “care a whole awful lot.” Two federal agents, citations in hand, approached the men who squat on the beach. The protesters were charged with violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act for their harassing jaunt toward the baby seal pups earlier that day.
Kylee and I think this event means that things are going to get better for the seals. They are.
Colleen Cochran is a law school grad, works for the fed. gov’t, and is a sometime writer.