SAN DIEGO — With the beachgoing season fast approaching, visitors and locals alike will be flocking to the San Diego coast to lounge on the shore or check out one of the other iconic attractions: the sea lions in the La Jolla Cove.
While the mammals are a sight to behold in person, growing numbers of people have taken to social media to document what marine life experts deem problematic behavior by visitors, including harassment, people getting too close to the wild animals to take pictures or what appears to be feeding attempts.
“Where people are inserting themselves for (a) selfie or for a picture to put on the internet, there are repercussions or things that can happen to the animals as a result of our interactions,” marine mammal stranding coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, Justin Viezbicke, said to FOX5SanDiego.com.
Things as simple as people using the shore as a place to lounge like one of San Diego’s other beaches is one of the ways that people can have an adverse effect on the mammals, because it disrupts their normal patterns of behavior that can put both beachgoers and sea lions at risk.
One such instance of this was documented in an infamous viral video on TikTok last summer that showed two sea lions chasing each other through the crowd before turning to the water.
Experts after the incident explained that the behavior was not an act of aggression towards humans, but at least two dozen people were directly in the way of the sea lions who were likely just trying to establish a territory for mating.
But these animals can weigh anywhere from 400 to 800 lbs. Had one of the mammals run into one of the people on the beach that day, they’d likely be seriously hurt.
Other things like getting too close – even if someone is not directly interacting with one of the animals – could potentially injure someone or an animal when their fight or flight response is triggered.
“These are wild animals. Anytime you try to get close or interact with a wild animal, there’s no guarantee what’s going to happen,” Viezbicke said. “What we try to tell people (is that) it’s best to err on the side of caution. Give that animal space, because there’s a chance that they could react.”
When this response is triggered, Viezbicke explained that it’s possible that the animals could injure themselves on the rocky waters around La Jolla or that pups could get separated from their mothers during a time when they are unable to take care of themselves.
The City of San Diego has approved an annual seasonal closure near the beach along the Point La Jolla bluffs from May 1 to Oct. 31 for this very reason of protecting the mammals during their pupping season. The Cove, however, remains open.
Most marine mammal regulations, however, are implemented by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries department, including laws 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 kinds of behaviors is the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. This act makes certain things like harassment and feeding of marine mammals, like whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions, a federal offense.
Under the law, harassment can take two forms:
- Level A, which is the act of tormenting or annoying a marine mammal that has the potential to injure them.
- Level B, defined as the disturbance of a marine mammal disrupting behavioral patterns like migration, breathing, feeding or sheltering.
Anyone engaging in behavior that is considered to be a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act could be fined upwards of $11,000 or face up to a year in prison.
While these regulations are in place, it does not mean that it is impossible for people to see the sea lions that reside in the La Jolla Cove. Visitors are encouraged to “share the shore” with sea lions when visiting them, in order to avoid disturbing their natural habitat.
Of the things that they recommend people can do to responsibly visit the animals, NOAA fisheries says to leave sea lions alone as much as possible.
Visitors are encouraged to keep a distance of about 50 to 100 yards from the sea lions when visiting them in their habitat, like La Jolla Cove. Use of binoculars or telephoto lenses are recommended to get an up close view of the creatures while at a safe distance.
Avoid circling or entrapping, abrupt movements and loud noises near sea lions and other marine mammals along the beach. Behavior like that could set off the animals
Other suggestions from NOAA Fisheries include: limit overall viewing time to about 30 minutes, stay out of the water near the mammals’ habitat, try not to touch a wild marine mammal even if they approach and move cautiously if behaviors that indicate agitation or stress.
Learn more about responsible behaviors for viewing these animals in the wild and the Marine Mammal Protection Act on the NOAA Fisheries website.
“This is a very unique and actually super awesome opportunity to see two different species – harbor seals and California sea lions – pupping… There’s not a lot of places in mainland California where you can see (that),” Viezbicke said. “But if we want to continue to see that, we as people need to be more responsible and understand that our actions have consequences.”