The pups, said Dave Koontz, SeaWorld’s director of communications, venture inland in search of food when they can’t find adequate sustenance in the ocean. Weak and exhausted, they lack the strength to get back to their natural habitat and have been found resting in most unusual places, including on a patio lounge chair at La Jolla’s Pantai Inn. Though it’s typical to see young sea lions stranding themselves after weaning — the pups turning up in recent months were likely born last summer — the number of ill and dying pups this year is astronomical, Koontz said.
“As a point of reference, we rescued 131 marine mammals (including sea lions and other marine mammals) in 2012, which is an average year,” he said. “This year alone, we’ve rescued more than 350, and of that, about 330 have been sea lions. It’s been an extremely unusual year.”
In March, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) declared an unusual mortality event, or UME, spanning the coast from the Mexican border up to Santa Barbara. Since January, more than 1,100 sea lion pups have been stranded statewide, and the UME will allow the NMFS to determine the cause, or rather the cause behind the cause.
“We know what’s going on — the pups’ food source is not available — but what they’ll try to determine is why,” Koontz said.
Sea lions feed mostly on baitfish like anchovies and sardines. The NMFS’ task force, made up of veterinarians, marine biologists and other experts, is attempting to determine what has happened to that food source to make the sea lions strand themselves in such great numbers. The causes could range from a depleted stock of baitfish to oceanographic issues (changing water temperatures or currents that could cause the food source to relocate) to disease components and a variety of other causes.
Adding to the problem is that sea lions get their hydration from the food they eat, not from drinking sea water. So, in addition to going hungry the stranded pups are often severely dehydrated. Fortunately, Koontz said, the animals, unlike those limited to the water like dolphins or whales, can haul themselves onto land, making rescue by organizations like SeaWorld much more feasible. And once they’re in the hands of rescuers, the sea lions have a pretty fair chance at survival. Pups taken to SeaWorld, Koontz said, generally have about a 65-70 percent chance of being returned to the wild, while others that are determined too ill to forage on their own find a new home at the park or in another facility that can provide long-term care.
Problems arise, however, when a pup has managed to strand itself in a particularly precarious location. When approaching a rescue, Koontz said, the first consideration is the safety of the rescuers and the animal. Because rescues by boat are impossible due to the difficulty of maneuvering a wild animal onto a small vessel, rescues must be done by land, and many of San Diego’s coastal cliffs and rocky geography don’t allow for safe access.
“Animals are not able to conceptualize the fact that a human is there to help them,” Koontz said. “They experience fear and a fight-or-flight response. When we approach them, their first response is going to be to try to get away, which is good. But it means we can only approach them by land.”
The crisis has become so widespread that other organizations are stepping in, as well. In addition to SeaWorld’s efforts, the National Marine Mammal Foundation has offered care to stranded pups, while the La Jolla-based Waitt Foundation, together with the San Diego Foundation, has launched a donation-matching campaign with the goal of raising $50,000 toward the emergency response to the UME. Every dollar contributed by the public will be matched by the Waitt Foundation up to $25,000, with the funds going to the treatment and medical care of rescued pups. Donations to the San Diego Foundation can be made at donate.sdfoundation.org/sdf or to NMMF at nmmf.org/give.
While not every pup can be rescued, Koontz said, success stories are common. On April 19, five pups were returned to the wild. When rescuers release the animals back into the ocean they choose a location with an abundant food source so rehabilitated pups will continue to thrive.
“Every animal is treated like an individual patient. There’s no cookie-cutter approach,” Koontz said. “It feels so great to be able to give these animals a second chance at life.”
If you come across a sea lion in distress, the most important thing, Koontz said, is to not touch the animal.
“Again, these animals don’t know someone is trying to help them,” he said. “As we often say, anything with a mouth can bite, and the last thing we want is a member of the public getting injured because they’re trying to approach or touch one of these animals.”
Instead, Koontz said, call SeaWorld’s rescue hotline at 1 (800) 541-7325 or the NMFS’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center, located in La Jolla, at (858) 546-7162. Another option, Koontz said, is to alert a law enforcement official or lifeguard to the animal in distress.
Notes from the field: Photographer Don Balch talks about his experiences monitoring sea lion pups who have stranded themselves on area beaches.
"I like to check ocean conditions from Coast Walk in La Jolla. It’s an elevated view of the coast looking over La Jolla Cove and points north. During mid-March, I noticed what was clearly a very young California sea lion, alone and lying on the rocks at the bottom of the seaside cliffs. These are very sociable animals, usually congregating in groups on shore so I knew something was not right. This area is not accessible except at very low tides or climbing down a muddy cliffside with the use of a rope that has been installed by some adventurous soul. I used that rope at least eight times to reach that rocky beach and in that time discovered a total of six juvenile sea lions by themselves, obviously ill and in need of help.
Upon seeing the first one, I climbed down the rope and took a closer look. The pup was visibly weak and disoriented. I know not to disturb these creatures, so I called the SeaWorld Marine Animal Rescue line. The message service was full and I could not leave any details. I knew the animal needed immediate help. I returned the next day and found it dead, plus another dead one that had washed up in the general area.
Over the course of the next two weeks, I made my way down to observe the area and encountered other young, sick sea lion pups. I called the animal rescue line again and it was still full. The third time I witnessed a sick pup, I got through on the tip line and left all the details of its condition — location, time of day and how to get there. Two days later, I got a call back from a very helpful SeaWorld staff member who explained they had been swamped with calls. Since the beginning of the year, more than 1,000 sea lion pups have been stranded along Southern California beaches. The staff member explained the area I was in was not easily accessible, which made it impossible for a rescue team to visit."