SAN DIEGO (KSWB) – Beachgoers were startled by a sea lion that appeared to charge them at La Jolla Cove in San Diego Sunday evening, but one expert says the humans may not have been the intended target.

The incident happened as summer crowds, mostly tourists, overwhelmed the tiny, protected beach — one of the most iconic in California — trying to get up-close photos with the beautiful sea mammals and newly weaned pups. But it’s risky to do so.

“I feel like people should educate themselves a little bit about the marine life here — what to do, what not to do, respect the sea lions, don’t touch them, don’t get in their space,” Japhet Perez Estrada, a La Jolla native and business owner, said to Nexstar’s KSWB on Monday. He swims the cove every day and captured video of the incident as he was getting out of the water.

“I looked to my left and I see a big sea lion just come out of the water and start charging and that’s when it turns to chaos,” Perez Estrada said. “Everyone was screaming and running around.”  

While the incident happened at a time when summer crowds filled the tiny beach, the two male sea lions were likely just chasing each other to establish a territory for mating — a normal pattern of behavior for the mammals that is not considered an act of aggression towards humans.

“In the sea lion world, this is mating season and the males are trying to establish territory, both in the water and on land,” Robyn Davidoff, chair of the Sierra Club Seal Society, told KSWB. “They do that by pushing the other one out of the way.”

Luckily, no beachgoers were hurt in the incident.

Regardless, this isn’t the first time that sea lions have run through a crowd on the beach as they were engaging in what experts say are normal patterns of behavior. Last year, another video capturing an almost identical incident during the mating season was shared on TikTok.

With videos like this depicting seemingly “aggressive” behavior, experts say some tourists — even locals — have conflated the incidents with their natural disposition or overestimated how often situations where humans are injured by the animals actually happen.

As she explained, the greatest risk of injury usually happens when beachgoers encroach on the sea lion’s space or startle them by doing things like attempting to take selfies with them or touch them. They do not deliberately attack or charge people unless they are provoked.

“They are wild animals, but they don’t typically charge people just for the heck of it,” Davidoff said. “There’s usually another sea lion there. They don’t really care about people.”

There are no hard-and-fast local regulations or fines, but there are federal guidelines that make it illegal to engage in some of the behavior seen by unknowing visitors to La Jolla Cove. Posted signs warn not to touch the sea life at the beach, but with little to no enforcement, there’s really nothing to be done.

“People get bit here every summer, people get charged every summer. And for us locals, it’s annoying because we like and respect the wildlife here,” Perez Estrada added. “I understand their excitement and they want to get close, but it’s nature. You got to give a distance.”

The City of San Diego approved a year-round closure near the Cove along the Point La Jolla bluffs during their pupping season for this very reason — to protect visitors from mating behavior that could create hazards for visitors.

The Cove itself, however, remains open and Davidoff says it’s unlikely San Diego officials will implement a similar closure given its popularity. That’s where other measures, like announcements and posted signs encouraging visitors to “share the shore,” come into play.

“Share the shore” is a guideline for beachgoers that basically comes down to leaving marine life, like sea lions, alone as much as possible, especially when visiting them in their habitat.

While KSWB was in La Jolla on Monday, dozens of people were climbing on the rocks and getting dangerously close, even climbing into a cave where the pups rest. A father with his kids next to him tried to feed one, with the male sea lion just a couple of feet away. 

Perez Estrada says it’s an everyday occurrence.

“We can see that right here there’s a sea lion, it’s obviously being a little aggressive, being territorial, and we have little kids standing maybe five feet away from it,” he said. “Parents should be more aware of the sea lion barking and that’s just a recipe for disaster.”

Another woman says she no longer goes down onto the sand at the cove because she was charged by a sea lion once during a scary encounter.

“I guess I got a little too close, not as close as these guys. He was really big and surprisingly fast. It’s one of those things, you’re just like, ’Oh my God. I’ve got to get away from him.’ I kind of tripped up the stairs. The terror was there.” 

“The sea lions and the seals are a huge tourist draw to La Jolla,” Davidoff said. “They’re here every day … just enjoy the wildlife encounter from a distance.”