On the beach at the Children’s Pool, curious tourists and locals, many with cameras at the ready, approached the dozens of harbor seals sleeping in the noonday sun.
From her vantage point on the sidewalk overlooking the horseshoe-shaped beach, Dorota Valli, a volunteer with the unofficial Seal Watch Campaign, was ready with her bullhorn.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she announced sternly, “please stay behind the rope. The seals are pregnant and they need their rest. No picture is worth hurting the seals.”
At the other end of the sidewalk, near the lifeguard tower, were activists of an opposing stripe who believe Valli and her group are robbing the citizens of San Diego of the right to enjoy the breakwater-protected beach and its tranquil access to the ocean.
“They’re shutting down the only man-made beach dedicated by trust for the children,” said David Pierce of the San Diego Council of Divers. “You don’t have to be against the seals to be in favor of humans.”
In a city with chronic financial problems and the usual set of urban dilemmas, there appears to be no issue that has engendered as much passion for the last two decades as the confluence of people and seals at the Children’s Pool beach in La Jolla.
Opposing sides in the dispute have set up tables, large informational signs and stacks of handout literature that they believe bolsters their cases. Both sides are armed with cameras.
Each will tell tales on the other. Each feels the other is misguided and selfish.
The pro-seal group has pictures and videos that they say show seals being harassed or injured. The divers have information about how the pro-seals attorney was once cited for using a stun gun and sentenced to anger management classes.
To Valli, the Children’s Pool is the only seal rookery on the mainland south of Santa Barbara County. To Pierce, it’s where spear fishermen for decades entered the ocean to hunt lobsters and white sea bass and where families taught their children to swim.
The dispute over whether seals or humans should have priority at the Children’s Pool has flared since the seals, for reasons unknown, appeared en masse, abandoning their historic haunts on the large rocks just offshore.
In recent years the dispute took on renewed fervor when the city of San Diego put up a rope barrier to discourage people from approaching the marine mammals during the pupping season, from mid-December to mid-May.
After the city put up the rope barrier last month, Pierce’s group held a protest on the beach, thrusting a real estate-style banner saying “open” into the sand near the seals.
On Friday, the La Jolla Friends of the Seals filed a lawsuit against Mayor Jerry Sanders and City Atty. Jan Goldsmith to force them to fulfill a promise by the City Council to close the beach entirely during pupping season.
The current barrier allows humans to stand a dozen or so yards behind the seals or flank them to the right to gain access to the water. “You shouldn’t have to tiptoe around the seals to get into the water,” Pierce said.
Meanwhile, the city’s request for a permit for a year-round rope barrier is pending before the California Coastal Commission. “Barrier,” however, is a bit of misnomer because it is easily breached.
Although the two sides are still passionate about the Children’s Pool, the reigning emotion over the issue at City Hall is exhaustion after years of litigation and an estimated $1 million in legal fees.
For years, the city was in the middle of a legal pingpong match: a federal judge saying the Marine Mammal Protection Act demanded that the seals be protected; a state judge saying the 1931 Tideland Grant required that the beach be kept open for children.
In hopes of finding an endgame, the council asked the state Legislature in 2009 to amend the grant, which originally called for the beach to be for children, as requested by philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps, who financed the breakwater.
A bill allowing the city to declare the beach a marine sanctuary was passed and signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Amid the legal and political wrangling over their presence, the seals have become a tourist magnet. Tour buses bring visitors daily. Rare is the day when the sidewalk is not crammed with people admiring the sleeping animals.
Bryan Pease, attorney for La Jolla Friends of the Seals, says it is wrong to pose the issue as an inter-species dispute.
“It’s not seals versus people,” Pease said as a line of tourists and locals walked by slowly. “Look at all these people: They love the seals. It’s those guys” — pointing to Pierce and the others — “versus all the people.”
As for the stun gun issue, Pease said that was six years ago and he was being accosted by a drunk.