After a Short-Lived Victory for the Children’s Pool This Summer, Team Seal Triumphs in the Final Stretch

FOCUS-cove-20091129130910-2-EJIn the early 1990s, a small population of seals wriggled up to a short stretch of prime La Jolla Cove real estate and declared it home. Only problem was, the protected shore was originally created in 1931 as a safe swimming spot for young children. Once the seals moved in, local residents began what would be a decade-plus fight over the beach’s rightful inhabitants.

As much of the threat of a Chargers relocation, the La Jolla children-versus-seals showdown is a long-drawn-out news item in San Diego. But — as of a Nov. 13 ruling by Superior Court Judge Timothy B. Taylor — it seems the debate over the Children’s Pool can finally be put to rest. Taylor’s ruling: The seals are here to stay.

Phots by Erik Jepsen/Guardian

The army of local residents fighting to drive the seals from the Children’s Pool have long argued that the cove has become a tanning bed to the growing colony of sea mammals who contaminate the water and prevent humans from utilizing the site. When Valerie O’Sullivan received a ticket for disturbing the seals while swimming in the cove in 2004, it was just what nay sayers needed to ignite the fight. O’Sullivan’s citation was evidence of the seals’ increasing rights to the beach — rights to which the community had never agreed.

Soon after receiving the ticket, O’Sullivan brought the city to court, citing its failure to maintain the beach in accordance with the trust that founded it in 1931. This trust, established by late philanthropist and La Jolla resident Ellen Browning Scripps (who also founded the Scripps Institute of Oceanography upon which UCSD was built), originally stated that the cove should be “devoted exclusively to public park, bathing pool for children.”


Scripps commissioned the construction of a 300-foot sea wall that now curves around the small beach, protecting it from large waves and undercurrents that could endanger young swimmers. The site was dubbed the La Jolla Children’s Pool, and became a hub for families looking for a stress-free day at the beach.

But, by allowing the seals to take over the beach and prevent its use as a “bathing pool,” the city of San Diego had failed to uphold Scripps’ land deed.

In 2005, one year after O’Sullivan filed suit, Judge William Pate ruled that the seals’ presence and resulting water contamination was indeed counter to Scripps’ trust. Pate ordered that the city disperse the seals and clean the FOCUS-seals-20091123215526-4-TK’90s.beach for human use by dredging it, an intensive excavation that would restore both the shore and immediate underwater area.

What followed was a series of contradictory back-and-forth court decisions spanning the five years since O’Sullivan’s suit, building off the anger of two passionate teams —animal-rights activists on the pro-seals front and La Jolla residents on the other — who had been volleying arguments since tensions rose in the mid

The anti-seals campaigners, who spawned the “Friends of the Children’s Pool” Web site have a growing list of complaints against the seals. As the seal population has increased, access to the beach’s ideal swimming area has steadily declined. And even if one can find a swimming spot, it’s usually contaminated with seal feces.

“It sucks having to swim though [the Children’s Pool] to go catch a wave or go fishing,” Sixth College senior Michael Barrus said.

Joining the La Jolla residents in the seal resistance were local fisherman, who said fish populations were decreasing due to the booming seal population.

FOCUS-seals-20091123215523-1-TKBut the pro-seal side — who have their own “La Jolla Friends of the Seals” Web site — argue that the seal population isn’t growing at all. The “Friends” site presents studies that estimate the seal population at a stable 200, with no notable increase over the past five years.

Seal supporters also turn to the heart-wrenching argument that — despite its original intent — the Children’s Pool has become a necessary sanctuary for animals living in a harsh new ocean.

“This is one of the last places for seals to give birth on the California coastline,” Friends of the Seals volunteer Emily Field said. “If people are walking on the beach during pupping season, it scares the seals back into the water, making birthing almost impossible.”

Fortunately for Field and her fellow seal advocates, Taylor’s Nov. 13 decision has lifted a final protective bubble

Tyler Kern/Guardian

over the sea-mammal sanctuary in UCSD’s backyard.

Though the decision overturned Pate’s 2005 ruling that the seals be forcefully dispersed, the city of San Diego expressed that it could not have afforded the hefty price tag to dredge the beach anyway.

This prompted San Diego-district Sen. Christine Keho (D-Calif) to introduce legislation in 2007 that would grant the city of San Diego discretion over the cove regardless of Scripps’ trust. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill, and the Nov. 13 hearing to determine the fate of the seals was scheduled. It was at this hearing that Taylor ruled in favor of amending the Scripps trust, allowing the seals to remain.

According to Taylor, his decision to let the seals stay was out of simple “respect for the legislative and executive branches of government.”

But for Field and her fellow pro-sealers, the verdict is, above all, a victory for animal rights.

“If we have the ability to restore a small piece of habitat, we owe it to the animals to do it,” said Field.

Readers can contact Kerry Fugett at [email protected].

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