Groups clash in court over seals on beach

July 31, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SAN DIEGO -- The beachcombers lie belly-down on the sand, enjoying the cool breeze and calm waters of a small beach in La Jolla, a rocky outcropping here flush with mansions and money.

But these lollygags have not left in more than a decade. At least 100 and sometimes upward of 200 sprawl out, taking over the sand and water.

It is generally agreed that the intruders - being harbor seals and all - are cute and that they do not seem to be going anywhere. But their antics - including some of the females giving birth right there on the sand - are driving some people crazy. And into court.

"It was kind of a family beach," said Valerie O'Sullivan, an avid swimmer who filed a lawsuit against the city in 2004 to restore the beach for human use. "This isn't the only place for the seals. There are plenty of seals up and down the coast."

Seals are not ideal beach companions, with the partially eaten fish, feces and wild smell that accompanies them.

But still, tourists flock to a breakwater at Children's Pool that allows observers a slightly elevated view just a few yards from the seals. "They're wild animals, they are not in a zoo and they are awful cute," said Suzanne Gault, a tourist from Tucson, Ariz.

O'Sullivan won the first round of her lawsuit when a Superior Court judge ruled that the city had to dredge to allow more water and tidal flushing on the beach, a move wildlife advocates said would disturb the seals and drive them away, probably for good.

The city has appealed the ruling, but a decision is not expected until next year.

The seals, meanwhile, continue to incite passion, with scuffles on the beach and a war of words that belie the animals' docile image.

In the latest twist, the Save-Our-Seals Coalition said it was determining whether and how it could put a ballot initiative before voters to permanently designate the beach for seals only.

John Hartley, a Sierra Club member who is part of the coalition, said such a move was necessary because the city had not agreed to preserve the beach for the animals.

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