COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE HAWKINS

Seal viewing via webcam

Once again activity at the La Jolla Children’s Pool is in the news. Harbor seals that have made a home there are now the subject of 24-hour video from the Western Alliance for Nature Conservancy, which was established to help save threatened habitats.

I’ve watched the webcam live video (wanconservancy.org/la_jolla_harbor_seal_earthcam.htm) several times. The view shows an area where as many as 50 harbor seals have hauled out to rest, give birth or maybe work on their tans. There is occasional camera movement but not much animal movement. One night I saw a pup having dinner and a seagull hoping to dine on afterbirth. I’ve seen that in person, as well, standing on the shore with grandkids or friends.

The camera makes it easier to do the viewing, though it isn’t a substitute for being there. The cove is an attractive destination to take kids and visitors. Either in person or via the webcam, it is mostly like looking at a still life, similar to the ones my mom asked her art students to paint. But it is free, courtesy of the conservancy, and I welcome it.

No doubt the webcam will be of more value to researchers than tourists, especially from February to June, when seal pups are born. The births frequently happen at night and the camera has infrared capability.

There is a dispute about whether the sheltered area should be shared with humans now that it has been claimed by the seals. Some people are troubled by the presence of the camera; others don’t like the rope fence intended to limit close access to the seals. That recently installed barrier is generating most of the discussion.

The Children’s Pool was created in 1931 with the privately funded construction of a breakwater and was intended to be a safe swimming beach for children. Several years ago, the harbor seals moved in and claimed it as their own, a bit of poetic justice. Humans have been known to occasionally take over areas previously used by others.

A Palomar College website says there are about 40,000 harbor seals along California’s coast, another Internet site says there are about 3 million harbor seals along the U.S. Pacific coast and Wikipedia says there are between 5 million and 6 million harbor seals worldwide.

I wouldn’t have paid much attention to this story but for one statement. In her U-T San Diego report on the unveiling of the webcam, Deborah Sullivan Brennan says beach access advocates fear the camera could be used to invade the privacy of beachgoers who might cross that fence.

I relish privacy as much as anyone. On this beach, though, it is hard to envision a right to remain unseen. The cove is near a busy street in a tourist area and can be observed easily.

Perhaps it was just a flash-point charge by beach access advocates who hope to shift the argument from whether the beach ought to be cordoned off to allow the seals their privacy to a question of the privacy rights of people. That argument doesn’t work here and its advocates will need to come up with a better objection.

In the meantime, the public will be able to watch a still-life tableau from their homes, scientists will have an upclose and personal view of the birthing of seal pups from the comfort of their offices, and seagulls will watch it all from the air with thoughts of getting a meal with limited risk.

As it turns out, the video did reveal seal harassment. It was stupid behavior and it was objectionable. Whether it should be prevented is a question others can address.

As for me, I don’t understand why this whole thing has caused such consternation. Why not let people swim with the seals? If they can take the smell and the risk, let them do it. If the seals don’t like it, they will find another protected area in which to take the sun.

Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart. He can be reached at george.hawkins@sddt.com

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