LAGUNA BEACH, California (Reuters) - Sick and malnourished sea lion pups are stranding themselves on Southern California beaches in some of the largest numbers seen in over a decade, perplexing scientists and leading one care facility to declare itself near capacity.
Officials at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California, have said they are in emergency mode.
The last time they saw such an onslaught of the mammal pups this early in the year was 1998, when an “El Nino” weather pattern warmed the waters off the California coast.
Fish migrated away from shore, which forced adult sea lions to swim farther to chase them and made it harder for mother sea lions to care for their young.
Animal rescuers believe adult sea lions are again foraging deeper into the ocean this year, but the reasons are unclear. What has been evident is the poor health of the many sea lion pups stranding themselves on beaches.
“As of a month ago, there were high numbers but in a less critical state - now we have high numbers in a critical state,” Keith Matassa, executive director of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, told Reuters.
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center, located about 45 miles south of Los Angeles, took in 12 sea lion pups on Saturday, which was the largest number of admissions in a single day in the center’s 42-year history.
Officials at the facility, the only one of its kind in Orange County, said they were caring for over 90 sea lions on Wednesday. “We’re not at max capacity but we’re reaching a critical state,” Matassa said.
Pacific Marine Mammal Center’s busy season is normally from April through August, which coincides with when most of the mammals are born. Last year in March, the facility was caring for only 10 sea lions, which was an average number.
Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in Los Angeles also has seen many sea lion pups in need of care and is housing over 100 of the mammals, said director David Bard.
Christine Sephenson, 24, and her friend Raeann Rodriguez, 30, were walking along the sand in Laguna Beach on Wednesday when they almost tripped over a sick pup and called the center to have it picked up.
“He had wounds all over and was coughing and could barely open his eyes,” Stephenson said. “You could see his ribs, he was crying.”
Back at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, several emaciated pups, with visible rib cages, lay in bundles in temperature-controlled rooms as veterinarians cared for them.
When the pups first arrive, they are put on a formula that includes dehydration remedy Pedialyte and sweetener Karo syrup. As the mammals get more healthy, fish is blended into their diet. It takes two to four months for the pups to get well.
“We’re a hospital so not all patients will make it through,” Matassa said.
A necropsy is performed on any animal that does not survive, as part of the effort to understand what is ailing the pups this year. “Even in death they can give us a lot of answers as to what’s going on,” Matassa said.
Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Sandra Maler