It was what wasn't at the La Jolla Children's Pool that attracted the attention of some holiday visitors.
In addition to a scarcity of harbor seals, also notably missing were the volunteers who have struggled to maintain a buffer zone between humans and seals since the City Council voted last September to remove a rope barrier from the beach. And while a handful of seals had wriggled their way onshore the Saturday before Christmas, they received little peace. Onlookers swarmed within a few feet of the cluster, posing for pictures and dangling screaming toddlers over the seals.
It was a scene that would have no doubt irked pro-seal activists had they been around to take note. So, where were the pinniped protectors?
On Dec. 15, San Diego Animal Advocates and La Jolla Friends of the Seals issued a statement announcing that they were curtailing their educational efforts, packing up their signs and going home. The activists, who say they have since filed formal complaints, cited repeated harassment from lifeguards and the San Diego Police Department as justification for abandoning their self-appointed posts.
While the seals were left to fend for themselves, it wasn't just perceived harassment that fueled the groups' retreat. Knowing that the Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute had been hired by the city to monitor the impact of bluff-top construction on the colony below, they made a calculated decision to allow the scientists to record the full impact of unfettered public access.
Pamela Yochem, the scientist in charge of monitoring the seals, didn't respond to e-mailed questions about her observations of the public's impact on the seals, but she said her findings should be released in the next few weeks.
Her report will likely only fuel the concerns of activists who claim that the carcasses of seven premature baby seals have been found at the Children's Pool in the past eight weeks.
"Scientists say that when seals receive extra stress they tend to abort fetuses," says Jim Hudnall, an advisor to La Jolla Friends of the Seals. "The assumption we make is that it's the crowding of the people around the seals that has caused the premature dead pups."
Hudnall says he fears continued human interaction could result in the death of all of the seals born during the next pupping season, which typically attracts large crowds from February to April.
Michelle Zetwo, a special agent with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), says her agency is in the final stages of approving a letter asking the San Diego City Council to reestablish the rope barrier during the pupping season. In the meantime, Zetwo is investigating a few reported violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and says two signs were recently placed on the beach to warn visitors that disturbing the seals is a violation of that act. Zetwo says NOAA is also considering installing surveillance equipment at the beach.
The city's Park and Recreation Department is also in the process of creating a sign that will be placed at the beach during the pupping season, but the sign's wording has yet to be finalized. Mike Behan, deputy park and recreation director, says that sign will replace those provided by NOAA.However, the activists fear signs won't make as clear a statement as the rope once did. Accordingly, they are renewing their efforts, reorganizing their ranks and refining their tactics. With legal challenges pending from both seal activists and proponents of joint use between people and animals, volunteers are still holding signs asking visitors to respect the seal rookery, but have abandoned their kelp line, which served as a makeshift barrier between humans and seals, in favor of raking a line in the sand.