A Busy Year for Seal and Sea Lion Rescue

Elephant seal pups being tube fed
Photo by Sarah van Schagen © The Marine Mammal Center
Visiting volunteer Alicia Atkins of Shedd Aquarium (left) and Richard Ferris, a volunteer at The Marine Mammal Center, tube-feed an elephant seal pup at the center’s hospital in Sausalito, Calif.

No matter where you live, there is wildlife that needs to be rescued and rehabilitated. In most places, that means a fledgling bird or an injured squirrel, but in Northern California, there's a rescue with a much bigger specialty. Since 1975, The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, has been taking in distressed seals and sea lions, and more animals need their help now than ever before.

"This year has been a record-breaking year," says Dr. Shawn Johnson, the center's director of veterinary science. By mid-June, 617 animals had already been taken in — more than their usual average of around 600 for the entire year.

Early Arrivals and Other Problems

In the spring, the rescuers typically assist local harbor seal and elephant seal pups that have been separated from their moms or aren't thriving once weaned, but this year they got some unexpected visitors as well.

"This spring was extra busy because we got so many elephant seals and an abnormal number of harbor seals, and then what put us over the top was all the sea lions we were getting early in the year," Johnson says.

Usually the busy season for sea lions doesn't start until late summer, because unlike seals, sea lions are migratory. They breed in Southern California and later come up north. But this year, they arrived early. "We've had over a couple hundred sea lions that we normally don't get in the spring, for reasons that haven't been completely explained, but it looks like it's because there's been a deficit of fish in Southern California," he says.

Unable to find food, the pups are arriving in the center's rescue area on the verge of starvation. "The little sea lions we're getting in right now are about 15 kilos [33 pounds]. They should be double that — 30 or 40 kilos [66 to 88 pounds]," Johnson explains. "They're extremely stunted and emaciated."

They've also taken in a record number of elephant seal pups, which breed nearby, possibly because they are also having trouble finding food. "They are nursed for about 28 days, and then the mom says, 'See you, I'm out of here,' and leaves this fat pup on the beach," he says. "They have about a month's worth of energy to figure out how to survive on their own."

Aside from the pups, the center has found an unusually large number of adult sea lions affected by a toxin called domoic acid, which is produced by an algae and accumulates in fish. "It doesn't affect the fish, but then the sea lion eats the fish, the toxin goes into the brain and causes brain damage and seizures," he says.

Helping Hands

On their busiest day so far, the center had 223 animals at once, most of which needed to be fed three or four times a day for about six to eight weeks each. The numbers strain the water filtration system, as well as the food and electricity budget — a challenge for an organization running almost entirely on donations. And it's way too many animals for only about 15 animal-care staff to handle. Fortunately, the center has a crew of more than 1,000 dedicated volunteers. "Every day has a day and night crew of 30 or 40 people," Johnson says.

To deal with the crush, help also came from far away. Bernadette Maciol, a veterinary technician at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, was there for more than a week at the height of the season. The biggest job, of course, was the feeding — which is complicated when most of the animals come in too weak to eat.

"They would grind up over a thousand pounds of fish a day with formula and a vitamin supplement, and you would work in teams to take a feeding tube and pass it down the animal's esophagus," she says.

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