Helping sea lions in crisis in California

Sea lions at Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in Orange County, California. California sea lions are stranding at an alarming rate. This year, more than 2,500 of these intelligent marine animals have come aground--20 times more than previous years!

Why is this happening?

We think it’s likely because prey fish such as sardines are being driven farther out to sea by higher than average water temperatures. Juvenile sea lions can’t make the trip and may be still weaning from their mothers, who are now gone for much longer periods.  This means that the pups aren’t getting fed by their mothers and can’t find food on their own. The stranded sea lions are emaciated and dehydrated from starvation.

Caring for these stranded pups is stretching the resources and capacity of rehabilitation centers to the max. Marine mammal professionals from all over the country have been helping West Coast facilities care for the hundreds of patients who require multiple specialized feedings, medical treatments and lots of cleaning.

A colleague from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in Orange County asked me to help, and I was on my way.

My 20+ years of experience with stranded marine mammals has been based on the East Coast of the United States with “true” or earless seals like gray, harbor and harp seals. Sea lions don’t live here so this was my first experience caring for the seal’s faster, more agile sea lion cousins.   

After arriving at PMMC, I toured the facility and met the dedicated staff. At first it didn’t really seem like more than 120 animals were there…until feeding time.

When it’s time to eat, all the sea lions know it and begin to roar, bark and honk loudly and the activity increases almost to a frenzy. Getting my bearings, I watched as the newer admits were tube fed (a technique used to deliver fluids and nutrition through a tube that is gently passed down the throat directly to the stomach) and made mental notes on the best technique to feed these wiggly pups.

Since I was very experienced in tube feeding seal pups back East, I was asked to jump in and help with the feed. It didn’t take long to feel confident working with the sea lions, though I will say I never did get used to how fast they could move! I learned quickly to always be on high alert.

Sea lions play in a holding tank at Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in Orange County, California.During the feedings, a call for a rescue came in. Two more starving sea lions were reported on the beach. After successfully capturing both animals, we brought them back to the center. We weighed them, checked their blood glucose (sugar) levels, gave them some fluids and placed them into the “nursery” with about 20 other sea lions.

With the two new sea lions admitted, we set about to prepare the next feed. Additional stranding reports came in and staff and volunteers were dispatched to rescue them while the rest of us went about feeding the sea lions at the center, cleaning the animal pens, and conducting medical treatments.

When I arrived at PMMC I asked director Keith Matassa, “What does a typical day look like?”

 “Clean, feed, rescue, clean, feed, rescue, etc.  Get some sleep, do it again tomorrow.”

This is what the days are like for PMMC and all of the other facilities dealing with this crisis. The days are long, physically exhausting, mentally challenging, and full of highs and lows. The dedication of the people doing this day after day, week after week is nothing short of astounding and their concern and care for the animals is admirable. 

Since my initial deployment, IFAW has sent two additional staff to PMMC and our apprentice deployed to the Marine Mammal Center many hours north in Sausalito, California. We hope that our contributions are giving some reprieve to the overtaxed staff and facilities and that we’ve made a difference for some of the affected animals. We are honored that the skills and knowledge of our team members were utilized during this event and that we were able to learn from our colleagues during our deployments as well.


Learn more about the California sea lion stranding crisis here or visit the Pacific marine mammal center and The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.

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Senior Program Advisor
Senior Program Advisor
Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
IFAW Veterinarian
Katie Moore, Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Loïs Lelanchon, Animal Rescue Program Officer
Animal Rescue Program Officer
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy