By Kim Robson:
The Children’s Pool Beach in La Jolla, California, is a small sandy beach that has been embroiled in controversy over public use vs. wildlife protection for over 20 years. In 1931, philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps paid for a curving sea wall to be built to protect the beach from crashing waves, making it a favorite spot for divers, swimmers, and families with small children.
The sea wall enclosed a shallow water area between a large rock and a mainland bluff called “Seal Rock Point.” It is topped by a paved walkway and lined with hand railings. In the years since the sea wall was built, roughly three quarters of the pool area within the sea wall has filled up with sand, greatly decreasing the protected area available for recreational swimming.
Ellen Browning Scripps gave the completed project to the City of San Diego. The gift was confirmed by an act of the legislature, signed by the governor in 1931, which states that “said lands shall be devoted exclusively to public park, bathing pool for children, parkway, highway, playground, and recreational purposes,” while specifying that the area should remain available for fishing.
Nearby Seal Rock has always been home to a seal population. In 1992 it was noted that the population of marine mammals and harbor seals, in particular, had been increasing over the prior 10 years. The City created the Seal Rock Marine Mammal Reserve in 1994. The boundary of the reserve extended almost to the seaward entrance of Children’s Pool. State agencies expressed conflicting opinions about the legality of creating this marine reserve.
At this time, seals were observed to haul out onto Seal Rock but none were seen on the beach at Children’s Pool, according to a report by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). By 1996, however, twice as many seals were using the beach as were using Seal Rock, presumably because the beach was easier to haul out there.
In September 1997, the city closed Children’s Pool to swimming because of “continuously high fecal coliform counts” caused by “a seal
excrement overload.” A controversy developed over the original intended purpose of the beach. Some wanted it to be transformed into a marine mammal sanctuary, while others wanted to preserve it for recreational swimming, as its benefactor, Ms. Scripps, had stipulated. The California Coastal Commission (CCC) ruled that Children’s Pool cannot be used as a marine preserve and must remain open to public access.
The city began discussing whether the seals should be removed from the beach and, if so, how to do so without traumatizing them. By 1999, seal pup births were taking place at Children’s Pool. The NMFS attributed the change to an increase in the local seal population, which had been observed all along the West Coast.
The NMFS said in February 2000 that it intended to manage the area as a “harbor seal natural haul-out and rookery.” Three years later the NMFS told the city it could not intentionally harass the seals at Children’s Pool in order to remove them, but could undertake activities that might temporarily displace the seals such as a dredging project to improve the water quality and decrease bacteria counts in the beach sand. The next year, NMFS said the matter was “a local issue for the City to resolve” and that the city is authorized to remove nuisance seals from the beach if it chooses to do so.
About 200 harbor seals are now using the beach regularly, creating a popular tourist attraction. Lifeguards and seal advocates monitor the beach area. Swimming is allowed, but not recommended due to the high levels of bacteria from seal feces.
In order to protect the seals from an overly enthusiastic public, the city has maintained a rope barrier during the pupping season, December 15 through May 15, so that pregnant seals can rest and give birth on the beach without humans coming too close and frightening them. However, an appellate court ruled in 2007 that the barrier is illegal. Then, in 2008, a federal appeals court judge gave permission for the city to reinstall the rope. The rope barrier is “advisory,” with an opening for public access, as mandated by the CCC.
Clashes between swimmers and animal advocates continue. The San Diego Police Department has responded to “numerous calls for service at Children’s Pool involving alleged incidents of threatened assault and intimidation” between seal advocates, swimmers and divers. In some cases, citations have been issued and people arrested. A La Jolla man was indicted for emailing death threats to the Animal Protection and Rescue League, and to a seal advocate who was videotaping interactions between divers and seals.
January 2013 saw the installation of a camera with night vision on the abandoned lifeguard tower in order to monitor the seals, their behavior, and any people interacting with them. Human harassment of the seals was recorded almost immediately after the camera’s installation. Citizens were outraged when video of the abuse went viral, and the mayor ordered the Children’s Pool closed at night in order to protect the pregnant seals and their newborn pups.
Numerous court cases over the years have drained the city’s resources, clogged the courts, and resulted in confusion and constant reversals of decisions regarding public access, the rope barrier and timing of its use. On April 12, 2013, a Superior Court judge and the CCC approved a year-round rope barrier to keep people away from the seals. This, undoubtedly, will not be the last we hear about this difficult situation.