SAN DIEGO — Beachgoers at La Jolla Cove were startled Sunday evening when two sea lions seemingly charged at people on the shore. However, marine mammal experts say that was likely not the case.
While the incident happened at a time when summer crowds filled the tiny beach, the two male sea lions were likely just chasing each other to establish a territory for mating — a normal pattern of behavior for the mammals that is not considered an act of aggression towards humans.
“In the sea lion world, this is mating season and the males are trying to establish territory, both in the water and on land,” Robyn Davidoff, chair of the Sierra Club Seal Society, said to FOX5SanDiego.com. “They do that by pushing the other one out of the way.”
A video of the incident captured by a beachgoer and obtained by FOX 5 showed just that, she said. One of the male sea lions came out of the water, approaching another one on the beach to spar with it and push it away.
But, it unfortunately happened at a time when dozens of people were standing in the way of the usually 400 to 800 lbs. mammals, putting those beachgoers at a serious risk of being trampled or otherwise seriously hurt.
“I looked to my left and I see a big sea lion just come out of the water and start charging and that’s when it turns to chaos … Everyone was screaming and running around,” the La Jolla resident who captured the incident on video said to FOX 5 on Monday.
Luckily, no beachgoers were hurt in the incident.
Regardless, this isn’t the first time that sea lions have run through a crowd on the beach as they were engaging in what experts say are normal patterns of behavior. Last year, another video capturing an almost identical incident during the mating season was shared on TikTok.
With videos like this depicting seemingly “aggressive” behavior, experts say some tourists — even locals — have conflated the incidents with their natural disposition or overestimated how often situations where humans are injured by the animals actually happen.
“They are wild animals, but they don’t typically charge people just for the heck of it,” Davidoff said. “There’s usually another sea lion there. They don’t really care about people.”
As she explained, the greatest risk of injury usually happens when beachgoers encroach on the sea lion’s space or startle them by doing things like attempt to take selfies with them or touch them. They do not deliberately attack or charge at people unless they are provoked.
There are no local regulations or fines preventing beachgoers from getting close to these mammals, but there are federal guidelines that make it illegal to engage in some of the behavior seen by unknowing visitors to La Jolla Cove.
The main set of laws around these behaviors is the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The act protects mammals like whales, dolphins and sea lions, making feeding or other behaviors that could be considered harassment a federal offense.
If an individual is found engaging in behavior that’s considered to violates these guidelines, they could be fined upwards of $11,000 or face up to a year in prison.
Enforcement of the Marine Mammal Protection Act is difficult though, as Davidoff explained, given that the only agents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are able to cite people for infractions of the law.
“Those kinds of [infractions] are happening all the time,” she said, “Unfortunately, they don’t have enough enforcement officers to send any of them down here … So it lands into the hands of the city, to Parks and Recreation, to try to send lifeguards to figure out what to do.”
The City of San Diego approved a year-round closure near the Cove along the Point La Jolla bluffs during their pupping season for this very reason — to protect visitors from mating behavior that could create hazards for visitors.
The Cove itself, however, remains open and Davidoff says it’s unlikely San Diego officials will implement a similar closure given its popularity. That’s where other measures, like announcements and posted signs encouraging visitors to “share the shore,” come into play.
“Share the shore” is a guideline for beachgoers that basically comes down to leaving marine life, like sea lions, alone as much as possible, especially when visiting them in their habitat.
“Stay 10 feet to 15 feet away and just be aware of your surroundings,” Davidoff said. “These are wild animals … be aware and give them space. Don’t block their entry or exit from the water.”
Avoid circling or entrapping, abrupt movements and loud noises near sea lions and other wild animals along the beach. Behavior like that could provoke the animals, leading them to the rare action of biting or attacking whomever they feel threatened by.
Davidoff encourages visitors to be aware of the warning signs to back off if a sea lion feels disturbed, including if they look directly at you or growl.
“The sea lions and the seals are a huge tourist draw to La Jolla,” Davidoff said. “They’re here every day … just enjoy the wildlife encounter from a distance.”