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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#410: Harbor Seals and The Children's Pool

The week before Expedition Catalina began, I returned to San Diego to give a talk and take more footage of pinnipeds. The La Jolla area is a fantastic place to film both sea lions and harbor seals since they are fairly common there despite the large human presence. There are some who are not pleased with the way harbor seals have taken over a local beach known as The Children's Pool. This site was protected when La Jolla philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps donated funds to build a seawall there in 1931 to create a safe area for children to swim. I have known a number of members of this family, having taught several and worked with others... not to mention the research I conducted at Scripps back in the 1990s. This was a very well intentioned project given the strong surf that can roll onto beaches in that region at times.

Harbor seals have found this to be an attractive place to haul out as well, and reportedly even give birth there. Of course this poses problems for human use. Harbor seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and can not be harassed. Those who wish to keep the seals there state that divers and beachgoers have indeed interfered with the pinnipeds by getting to close and even touching them. As a diver, I must admit I would NOT choose to dive in this location. We think we have a problem with water quality in Avalon Bay, but imagine what happens when dozens of harbor seals defecate daily in the waters of the Children's Pool! The little girl who once asked my friend Jean-Michel Cousteau "How can you swim in the ocean with all those fish poopies" would be aghast to know divers did so with pinniped poop in the water!

This poses an interesting question. Whose beach is it anyway? Although it was created for children almost 70 years ago, given the current situation I would hardly advocate allowing your young child to swim there. Just wouldn't be prudent! Long before humans colonized the La Jolla-San Diego area, harbor seals were using its beaches for their own "munching" and "mating" activities. As the region became increasingly developed, fewer and fewer of its beaches were safe for seals or sea lions. Of course back before European man entered the scene, "Native" Americans shared the beaches with these critters... even taking a few for their supper. However the impact of a few thousand people was quite different from that of the millions who now reside there with the ability to substantially alter the shoreline.

I'm not going to weigh in on either side of this debate. I am truly grateful that the harbor seals are present because it gave me a great opportunity to gather several hours of video footage for future episodes of my cable TV show. I'm willing to share the beach with the real "natives" that reached them long before humans had even evolved! We need to learn to coexist not only with nature, but with other humans as well. For the rest of this column I will present a few facts about these interesting marine mammals in hopes you will learn to appreciate them. While harbor seals are not as "entertaining" as the California sea lion seen in circuses and zoos, I find them quite interesting and hope you will, too.

The harbor seal, known scientifically as Phoca vitulina, is a widespread species. Along the Pacific coast they are known from the Arctic (brrrr) down to Baja, and on the Atlantic coast from Greenland south to Florida. In addition, harbor seals are common in European waters. They tend to spend equal amounts of time in the water and on land, which makes them easy subjects for me to film.

Their coats are spotted and come in a variety of shades... as long as you agree with Henry Ford, since all these "shades" are ones of black... er, gray. Black, silver gray, and even white coats may be observed. Males are 150 to 350 pounds and up to 6.2 feet in length, while females are smaller at 130 to 250 pounds and up to 5.6 feet.

Harbor seals feed on fish including blacksmith, sole, flounder, sculpin, hake, cod and herring and enjoy adding a little variety to their diet with yummy octopus and squid, and even an occasional garibaldi (I guess they haven't read the Fish & Game Code). They are reported to dive as deep as 1,500 feet to capture prey on dives lasting up to 40 minutes. However, the average dive is much shallower and may only last 3 to 7 minutes. In turn, they are eaten by sharks, killer whales and even the much larger Steller sea lion.

Mature females usually mate and give birth every year. Pups weighing 20 to 24 pounds are born between February and April (and you ladies thought the delivery of your children was rough... and I'm sure it was if they were as big as me!). They are able to swim right after birth, and sometimes ride on their mother's back. They are weaned after about a month. Individual harbor seals may live 20 to 25 years. In 2009 the population of this species in California was estimated at 34,000.

Although harbor seals largely sunbathe, lounging on the beach without benefit of cabana boys or girls, I was able to record a number of interesting behaviors during my filming. Juveniles would challenge one another if space was limited, and play with one another under better conditions. Watching them try to move up and down the beach like huge "inchworms" could be rather humorous. Grooming behavior using front and rear flippers as well as their snouts was frequent. Fortunately they were much quieter than the sea lions further up the coast. However, if you want to see all this cool stuff, you're going to have to watch my cable TV show or buy my DVD when it comes out! How's that for a teaser?

© 2010 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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View of the Children's Pool showing people watching harbor seals on beach, young seal on rocks;
young seal on beach and "bored" seal yawning

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2010 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia