People Keep Harassing Sea Lions In California — And No One Is Stopping Them

“This is an amazingly frustrating situation in California.”

In an upsetting video, a baby sea lion flinches as a little boy rushes toward her, looking as if he’s going to punch her in the face. While the boy doesn’t end up touching her, other people take turns harassing the baby animal as she attempts to nap on the beach. Throughout the course of the video, members of the public reach out to touch her, take selfies and intimidate her by surrounding her on all sides.

In the same video, people bother other sea lions as well. A middle-aged man guides his little girl right up to an older sea lion, who gets annoyed and starts to charge toward them. Another man appears to throw bottled water on a sea lion resting on the beach below.

All of these events happened on a single day — Tuesday, April 3, 2018 — at Boomer Beach in La Jolla, a community within San Diego, California. The woman who made the video, Andrea Hahn, occasionally shouts at the people harassing the animals.

“Knock it off,” Hahn tells the man who squirted a sea lion with a bottle of water. “Don’t spray things at her. Read the signs. They’re protected by federal law.”

A child pretending to box a sea lion
A little boy pretending to box a sea lion on Boomer Beach | Andrea Hahn

What Hahn says is true — sea lions, as well as other marine mammals like whales and sea otters, are protected under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which specifies that it’s illegal to harass, feed, hunt, capture, collect or kill these animals. There are signs around La Jolla Beach detailing this law — but neither the law itself nor the signs seem to be doing much to protect the sea lions.

A sign in La Jolla telling visitors not to bother the sea lions | Andrea Hahn

“[People are] throwing their drinks at them,” Hahn told The Dodo. “I have been told by a lifeguard that they even try to put lighted cigarettes in their mouths. The public are here to enjoy themselves, and as the law is not being enforced, they are free to do as they please.”

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), believes that the sea lions need to be better protected by local officials — and that the public should be respecting these animals by leaving them alone.

People sneaking up on a sea lion
People sneaking up on a baby sea lion to take selfies | Andrea Hahn

“This is an amazingly frustrating situation in California, which has been going on for some time,” Rose told The Dodo. “These sea lions, who are there to rest, are constantly harassed by the public.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is the agency responsible for enforcing the MMPA and protecting the sea lions — but so far, NMFS hasn’t been doing its job, according to Rose.

People crowding around a sea lion on a beach
People crowding around a sea lion at Boomer Beach | Andrea Hahn

“If NMFS wanted to, they could ticket everyone who approaches these animals too closely for selfies, for what is called ‘Level B harassment,’” Rose said. “In addition, it’s a hazard for the people too (which NMFS isn’t really responsible for, but should work to avoid). People have been bitten when they get too close — you see in the video a couple of instances where an animal starts to charge someone, but without much energy, as these are all young animals (not dominant adults) and they are there to rest, so they don’t have a lot of energy to defend their ‘personal space.’”

Young woman inching towards sleeping sea lion
A young woman posing for a photo next to a sleeping sea lion | Andrea Hahn

Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, also believes that measures should be taken to protect sea lions from harassment.

“It’s extremely stressful for them, and there have been numerous pups who have died as a result,” Watson told The Dodo. “Barriers should be put up to keep the public from approaching them. And if anybody goes over those barriers, they should be charged.”

Man and little girl getting lose to a sea lion
A man guiding his little girl toward a sea lion for a photo opportunity | Andrea Hahn

Not only are sea lions being harassed in La Jolla, but some business owners don’t want the sea lions on the beach at all. In fact, a group called the Citizens for Odor Nuisance Abatement has been campaigning to kick the sea lions out from La Jolla altogether, arguing that the animals are contaminating the area with their smells.

People crowding around baby sea lion
Andrea Hahn

“The local enforcement arm of the agency feels more sympathy for the business owners along this area of beach (who find the constant barking and smell of the animals annoying) than for the animals being harassed,” Rose said. “The business owners would like to see the animals harassed right off the beach, but so far that hasn’t happened.”

Person getting close to a wild baby sea lion
Andrea Hahn

Animal welfare advocates, on the other hand, believe that the sea lions have a right to be there, and they’re working hard to protect them. While the situation is certainly upsetting, Watson believes that change will happen through individuals like Hahn, who regularly documents the sea lion harassment and helps spread awareness about the issue.

“This is an example of how one person is actually making a difference,” Watson said. “We try to encourage everybody to get involved at a local level, and I think Andrea is doing a good job on that.”

To help protect the sea lions in La Jolla, you can contact the NMFS and urge the officials to enforce MMPA and protect the sea lions.