The stories of two rival groups "” the Animal Protection and Rescue League, a group that stands vigil over the beach ensuring the safety of the harbor seals that occupy it, and Friends of the Children's Pool, divers turned activists fighting the marine mammals for control of the beach "” diverge at this point.
Attorney Paul Kennerson mingled with divers and other members of Friends of the Children's Pool, toasting a California Supreme Court ruling ordering the City of San Diego to clean the water and beach. But the celebrants are accused of putting newborn seals at risk, following two divers' struggles in heavy currents.
The seals at Casa Beach, or the Children's Pool, have been the center of an ongoing controversy that escalates this time of year when females give birth to their young, causing tension to rise between the rival groups. The Friends of the Children's Pool comprises mostly divers who'd like the seals to leave. It is a federal violation to harass a seal or other marine mammal, and although divers continue to use Casa Beach, members of opposing groups often take divers' license plate numbers and report them to authorities.
During pupping season, APRL volunteers watch the mothers and their young, according to Dorota Valli, APRL seal campaign coordinator. If a mother seal is flushed "” a term used when a seal is scared into the water, a federal offense "” she may never bond with the pup again.
For years, the two groups have been fighting over the Children's Pool beach, an area considered a great diving spot. In the early 20th century, late La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps paid to construct a concrete breakwater, smoothing the current. Her intention is the basis for the battle and ongoing court saga. Scripps gave the breakwater to the city under conditions of a trust, stipulating that the beach be used to teach children to swim. But the harbor seals moved in, fouling the water and sand with bacteria from their feces.
After many court cases, a judge recently ruled the beach must revert to its original use, meaning the water needs to be clean enough for human swimming. But seal activists won't give up.
Neither will the divers, who want their beach back.
During winter months, pregnant harbor seals haul out onto the beach to give birth to their pups. In past years, the city installed a rope barrier to protect the baby seals and mothers from close human interaction. According to Valli, flushing a seal is against the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA); a citation can result in a fine of up to $100,000 or a few years in prison. This year, the judge's ruling prohibited the installation of the rope.
This year's first seal pup at Children's Pool was born Sunday, Feb. 10. Then on Friday, Feb. 15, about 10 people decided to have a barbecue, said diver John Leek, a member of Friends of the Children's Pool who attended the celebration. Included in the group was Kennerson, attorney for Valerie O'Sullivan, the swimmer who initiated the lawsuit that went to the California Supreme Court.
"We were in support of the Children's Pool and we were feeling good the Supreme Court came back with that decision," Leek said.
Both Leek and Valli said the activists began barbecuing in a corner on the sand away from the seals. Both groups said the activity was not disturbing the seals.
"The seals don't mind," Leek said. "We've done that many times."
Then, around 6 p.m., Leek noticed two divers trying to swim through the currents into the Children's Pool area. According to Leek, they were struggling with the riptides, so he called 9-1-1 and began guiding them with help from lifeguards.
"They were having so much trouble," Leek said. "They came ashore to the place least occupied by seals."
The barbecue attendees began rescuing the divers, and the seals began to scatter, Valli said.
According to a press release from the pro-seal organization, of the 150 seals, 80 flushed into the water, including two newborn pups.
APRL said two seal pups went missing. Valli said the divers scared the babies away "“ one for a few hours, and one until the next morning.
Valli said she and other seal activists began videotaping the divers coming up onto the beach, she said. The group called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to report the incident and tried to get the license numbers of the divers' cars.
Leek said the divers came onto the beach without much oxygen and are lucky to be alive. Still, nobody informed the seal activists of the extreme nature of the situation.
According to Valli, the seal pups returned unharmed. Incidents like this one are why a rope is needed, she said. The organization claims the federal MMPA trumps the judge's state ruling.
The organization will plead its case in federal court today, Feb. 21, at 4 p.m.