File photo by Sam Hodgson
A seal at the La Jolla Children's Pool.
Bryan Pease considers himself a passionate animal-rights defender and a champion of the underdog.
Yet the attorney who’s spent years fighting to protect seals at the La Jolla Children’s Pool wants to boot sea lions from the bluffs at nearby La Jolla Cove, and his latest clients are well-to-do La Jolla business owners.
But Pease, one of two lawyers who sued the city last week in hopes of persuading officials to stamp out the persistent, acrid stench at La Jolla Cove presumably spurred by sea lion and bird droppings, said he hasn’t switched sides.
He says the nearby La Valencia Hotel and George’s at the Cove restaurant, plus hundreds of residents and cove visitors, are victims of the lingering stench.
“They’re powerless to do anything,” Pease said. “They’re being enveloped by this noxious odor and there’s nothing they can do about it.”
He also can’t stand the smell himself.
So he and attorney Norm Blumenthal argue a fence surrounding La Jolla Cove and a contingent of sea lions needs to go.
“If people are allowed on the bluffs, the animals will stop using it as an area to defecate, and as a result the smell will, over time, go away, patrons will return and this sad chapter of the La Jolla Cove smelling like a sewer will mercifully end,” the attorneys wrote in their suit.
But Pease is one of the city’s most outspoken seal advocates, so much so that he’s even been occasionally recognized by strangers and dubbed “the seal guy.” So why does he want to destroy a fence that insulates them from human interaction?
His response: Well, because the creatures at La Jolla Cove aren’t seals. They’re sea lions.
The harbor seals that hang out at the Children’s Pool beach have short, webbed flippers that make it difficult for them to traverse rocky areas like the La Jolla Cove. Instead, local seals return to the same sandy beach year after year and their droppings easily wash away with the tide. They mate and give birth in the area between December and May.
Particularly during this five-month period, they’re easily disturbed and may abandon an area, or even their offspring, after a frightening encounter with a human.
The sea lions at the nearby La Jolla Cove may look similar to seals but they have larger flippers that allow them to waddle over the bluffs. This means their feces go there too.
Sea lions aren’t as intimidated by humans, or as tied to specific areas.
“The sea lions have a lot more options as to where they can go and the males are going to be aggressive if someone tries to encroach on them,” Pease said.
Sea lions have been known to bite humans if they feel threatened, or to simply go elsewhere if they don’t want to be bothered.
If people act appropriately, Pease argues the sea lions will simply relocate, likely even to the bottom areas of the cove where sea water can wash away their droppings.
That seemed to be happening last week after city workers installed a gate to allow visitors to walk atop the cove. (A spokesman for interim mayor Todd Gloria said the new addition was planned before Pease and Blumenthal filed suit.)
In the lawsuit, Pease and Blumenthal contend the fence should come down altogether. They say nearby businesses and residents didn’t have any say when the wooden barrier went up years ago and it’s since allowed sea lions to turn the bluffs into a literal wasteland rather than a pupping zone.
Not everyone is pleased Pease has taken the case, or that he’s pushing for greater human access to the cove.
“This is what San Diego’s compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act looks like,” one woman wrote in a Thursday email to Pease, sharing a photo of cove visitors walking along the bluffs. “These are innocent sea lions and birds now fighting for their lives.”
“Hopefully that area will stop looking and smelling like a sewer with puddles of excrement everywhere because the birds and sea lions are coming up too high and using it as a toilet,” he wrote back.
Pease expects more email exchanges like this. Even seal advocates confuse the two marine mammal species and their needs, he said.
The city, too, has faced pushback. It’s received multiple complaints and an unidentified person put a lock on the gate to the cove on Thursday morning.
Officials have cautioned cove visitors to be respectful of the wildlife, and posted signage saying the same. Federal law bars harassment of sea lions and a city spokesman said the city won’t tolerate violators.
Meanwhile, the president of the usually outspoken La Jolla Friends of the Seals said her group has opted not to take a position on the cove stench or Pease’s lawsuit.
No local or national groups have publicly come out against the city’s recent action or the lawsuit.
Pease hopes his involvement in the lawsuit will help at least some San Diegans recognize the difference between seals and sea lions.
“I do not want the harbor seals we’ve worked to protect for so long being blamed for this odor they are not causing,” Pease said.
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