By Kim Robson:
La Jolla Cove is a small, picturesque cove and beach in La Jolla, California, within walking distance of the
Children’s Pool Beach. On the bluffs above the beach and stretching south is Ellen Browning Scripps Park, a grassy area with trees and landscaping, where my husband and I got married. The Cove is a popular launching area for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving, and is home to the annual “La Jolla Cove Rough Water Swim,” one of the oldest ocean swims in the world.
About ten years ago, a visitor slipped on the bluffs above the Cove and sued the City of San Diego. The city responded by putting up fencing that prevented access to the bluffs. In the ensuing years, however, sea birds and sea lions have taken over those bluffs, resulting in a horrendous smell that pervades the tiny La Jolla shopping and restaurant district. Tourists are staying away from restaurants, hotels and shops now because of the awful stench and loud barking, creating a huge impact on the local economy. When the wind is right — and the wind usually is blowing from offshore — tourists and residents alike find that the revolting stench ruins business and quality of life. “My son just had to go up to the bathroom to throw up,” said a visitor named Nancy.
The historic La Valencia Hotel alone is losing $6,000 a day in room revenue, weddings and dining. Boxer Floyd Mayweather recently booked two villas and six rooms for himself and his entourage at the La Valencia, only to check out 15 minutes later because of the smell, costing the hotel a small fortune.
In June of 2013, a private company was hired to spray the cliffs with specialized bacteria to eat away the bird guano. The 10-day, $50,000 process took place after locals secured permits and waited for bird nesting season to end. The spraying was repeated again in November 2013, and that was when it became apparent that the primary smell was not coming from bird droppings. The bird guano was creating only a layer of nuance over the real stench: sea lion excrement.
Without the presence of people on the bluffs, colonies of sea lions have taken over and greatly increased their population. Now that the sea lions have gotten comfortable at the Cove, they are displaying aggressive territorial behavior: biting, mounting, charging, chasing, baring teeth at people, and not allowing swimmers to enter the water. They leave behind huge floating streams of feces, causing nasty infections and illnesses for swimmers, who are beginning to abandon the area.
“It’s dirty, it stinks, and it’s like swimming in a toilet that hasn’t been flushed,” says yoga instructor and former La Jolla Town Council president, Anne Cleveland. The increased presence of sea lions also has resulted in increased sightings of Great White sharks, who love to eat sea lions and seals. Many feel it’s only a matter of time before a shark mistakes a wetsuit-clad swimmer or diver for a meal.
A nonprofit organization called Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement is suing the city of San Diego, the Mayor, and the state of California over the noxious odor at La Jolla Cove. The group maintains that seals and sea lions wouldn’t be a problem if humans were allowed free access to the bluffs. The smell at the Cove was never a problem before La Jolla started turning into a wildlife preserve. There’s also the issue of public beach access guaranteed by law through the California Coastal Commission.
The La Jolla Merchant’s Association and the city did some research and found that it was, in fact, not illegal for anyone to jump the fence and roam the bluffs. But realistically, 99.9% of people won’t want to do that. On December 31, 2013, a gate was quietly installed in the fencing, allowing public access to the bluffs again. Despite the intimidating warning signs just inside the gate (Unstable Cliffs. Danger. Stay Back. Do Not Approach Wild Animals), people are starting to go back to the bluffs.
It is illegal to “purposefully harass, harm, or flush” away sea birds and sea lions. Lifeguards will be on alert for violations of this nature. “There’s a big difference between ambling down to look at the view and running down the hills, arms akimbo,” says Bill Harris, the City’s Transportation and Storm Water Department spokesman, who has also worked on the Children’s Pool issue.
Shortly after public access was validated, George Hauer, owner of George’s at the Cove, decided to test it out. He jumped the fence and reported that within five minutes, all the birds had flown away and the sea lions had jumped back into the water. Five days later, he repeated the stunt, but this time four lifeguards ordered him back because of a flood of 911 calls. “It seemed odd to me that I commanded the attention of seven of San Diego’s finest because I walked on the bluffs,” he said. Since then, other people have been spotted on the bluffs within the fenced area without incident. Undoubtedly, word of mouth will get around that the bluffs are accessible again. Perhaps soon La Jolla will reclaim its title as the “Jewel of the City.”