The San Diego City Council unanimously voted to close a 150-yard stretch of coastline known as Point La Jolla after selfie-taking visitors got too close to the pinnipeds.
A popular San Diego beach has long been the domain of sea lions, which for years tolerated their human onlookers — some more respectful than others.
But tensions escalated this summer, when two large males charged ashore, sending a crowd of beachgoers scrambling for their clothes and stumbling over rocks to escape. A lifeguard urged people to give the animals space. “They have bit people,” he warned, “and they are protected animals.”
Last week, the city made it official: Point La Jolla is not for the people.
The resolution, passed unanimously by the San Diego City Council, follows months of debate regarding the beloved beach just north of La Jolla Cove; the rocky stretch is popular with spear fishermen and body surfers and is home to a rookery of 100 to 200 sea lions. But in recent years, social media posts bragging about close encounters with the animals have drawn throngs of tourists, who have increasingly encroached on the animals’ space.
Conservationists cite visitors who get too close to the sea lions to take selfies, to touch and pet them or even to climb on top of the larger ones. Other visitors, conservationists say, have tried to handle week-old pups, while their mothers are out at sea gathering fish. Male sea lions, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, often become particularly aggressive during mating season in the summer, which is also the busiest period for tourists.
“Several pups drowned from being harassed into the water before they were capable of handling the turbulence of the waves,” said Kirsten Donald, a biologist with the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, which was involved in promoting the closure. When it comes to nature, she added, “people have really lost their common sense.”
Last year, officials decided to close the area — a roughly 150-yard stretch from Point La Jolla to Boomer Beach — during pupping season, which runs from May to October. But the amendment extends the closure year-round. Visitors will have to watch the sea lions from behind a barrier, and an access point will remain open for those wanting to enter the water for “ocean swimming activities only,” according to documents posted by the City Council.
In public comments, many locals supported the closure, citing the dangers of harassing the animals, as well as the hazards of slippery rocks. One woman noted that a cellphone with a good zoom camera could do just about as good a job as getting up close to the mammals. But other locals said they strongly opposed the measure; one claimed that there were too many pinnipeds. Another described the closure as a “hostile takeover of a public beach.”
Japhet Perez Estrada, a 28-year-old local resident who filmed the widely shared July incident, said that while the harassment of the sea lions upset him, he felt that closing Point La Jolla was “too heavy handed.” He recalled visiting the beach as a child and believed that future generations should enjoy the same experience. “It’s punishing the masses for honestly the actions of a very small minority,” he said. “It’s not fair to the rest of us.”
Mr. Perez Estrada said he had filmed the two sea lions bounding ashore at La Jolla Cove, which is not being closed off, after a two-mile open water swim (he usually carries his phone for safety in a waterproof case). He said he was struck by the sheer number of people crowding the beach and how close they were to the sea lions. “Unfortunately,” he added, “this wasn’t my first time seeing something like this.”
Mr. Perez Estrada recalled when he got into an altercation with a man he saw tossing orange peels at a group of sea lions in an effort to chase them from the patch of sand where he had hoped to plant his chairs. “His arguments were, ‘Humans are the bosses, animals should listen to us,’” Mr. Perez Estrada said. “Just nonsense.”
But, he added, “as locals we know better, we grew up around the sea lions — we know to respect their space.”