Another tough year for sea lions in California

More than 1900 sea lions had stranded in California in the first half of 2016; many were rehabilitated at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.For the second year in a row, record numbers of starving California sea lions have been stranding along the California coastline, overwhelming local marine mammal rehabilitation hospitals throughout the state again. Last year, four staff members from IFAW’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Research Program headed out west to assist several of California’s marine mammal rehabilitation facilities.

Anticipating another busy year, we planned ahead for deployment. When the call came in for assistance, we were ready to help. Assistant Stranding Coordinator, CT Harry and I each spent a week working long days, trying to provide some assistance and relief to the staff and volunteers at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in Laguna Beach, all of us having the same goal of trying to save these animals and return them to the ocean in a healthier state.

This was a bit of a homecoming and reminder of my earlier days in this field, having grown up in southern California and studied marine mammals during my undergraduate work at Humboldt State University in Northern California. My first experiences in marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation were while volunteering at a small seal and sea lion hospital in Crescent City, California.

There, I helped care for sea lions, fur seals and harbor seals. Those experiences would turn out to be very useful during my time at PMMC. Here on the east coast of the US, the seals are much less mobile on land than the sea lions in California. It has been 15 years since I have worked with sea lions or fur seals, so I was happy that the skills learned early in my career quickly came back to me.

Admittedly, when I first arrived at the PMMC, I was a bit overwhelmed. At 7 am, I was at the front door of the facility ready to go, but the center was already abuzz. Staff and volunteers were already busy starting the first of three feedings for the day.

During my time at PMMC, there were approximately 130 animals being cared for at any given time.

Exact numbers fluctuated daily, as reports of more stranded animals continued to come in. What seemed like such a huge number of animals to me, was actually a bit less than the number cared for at the facility in 2015.

While still incredibly high with 1908 California sea lions having stranded in California from January – May of 2016, this was significantly lower than 2015.

READ: 2016 Elevated Californa Sea Lions Strandings in California: FAQs

According to NOAA, environmental conditions have not changed and the availability of prey has not likely improved. Sadly, the lower number of stranded sea lions is likely due to fewer animals being born this year, an effect of the previous years’ events.

Many of the pups that were born in 2016 were weaker and did not ever make it to the rehabilitation facilities for treatment.

From my week at PMMC, what remains with me the most is how mentally and physically exhausting this work was. After the first day I was exhausted and sore, and I still had 4 more days!

After five 12 –hour plus days of cleaning, feeding, and rescuing sea lions on the beach, hardly stopping during the day to even eat, I kept thinking to myself, I am only here for a week, the staff and PMMC volunteers are here nearly every day, and are in it for the long haul.

They amazed and inspired me with their dedication.

What motivates everyone involved in this work is the knowledge that our efforts, regardless of how tiring, may save many of these sea lions.

My favorite moment of the week (there were many), was releasing a rehabilitated sea lion from the local harboraster’s boat.

 Seeing the animal swim off was a wonderful reminder of why we do this work!

--MN

WATCH: Chest cam captures race to save entangled seal

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