For the third year in a row, rescuers are saving a record number of California sea lions stranded on the state’s coastline. More than 250 starving pups have been rescued already this year. Most of them are around 7 months old and should still be with their mothers nursing in the Channel Islands.
Scientists are baffled by the increasing mortality rates over the past three years.Some believe that higher water temperatures off the California coast are to blame. Perhaps mother sea lions are being forced to venture farther away from their pups for food. Other researchers believe that the environment is simply unable to support an increase in population. The general consensus is that disease is not a factor.
Young sea lions generally stay with their mothers until they are 10 or 11 months old.Until then, they remain close by, nursing regularly, gaining weight, and learning to dive so that they can fend for themselves when the time comes. If, as scientists theorize, fish are living in deeper waters due to warmer temperatures, the mothers will leave their pups to hunt. If they stay away for too long, the pups will not be able to get adequate nutrition.
Marine biologists are concerned that the mortality rate could become higher than numbers in 2013, which was called an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). That year, the number of rescued sea lions exceeded 1,300 between January and May. This January, rescuers saved 87 stranded California sea lions, compared to 19 in the same month in 2013.
The sea lions being rescued are emaciated, weighing in at around 15 pounds instead of a healthy 40 pounds. Rescuers say that the pups look severely underweight. “You can see the bones under their skin,” said Erica Donnelly-Greenan, a manager at a Sausalito rescue station.
The pups being rescued have been treated with antibiotics and IV fluids. The most ill are being fed with feeding tubes. The efforts of veterinarians and rescuers are beginning to pay off. Some of the sea lion pups are nearly ready to return to the wild. When they came in, SeaWorld vet Dr. Hendrick Rollins said that the pups were too weak to raise their heads. Now he says that they are beginning to groom themselves and are becoming more vocal. It is a sure sign that they are feeling better.
Locals are doing as much as they can to help care for the record number of rescued pups. All along the California coast, volunteers are giving up time to help feed and do laundry for the ailing pups. The local girl scouts have done their part, as well. They have supplied rescuers with dozens of fleece blankets to keep the sea lions warm.
Volunteers say that helping the pups is a difficult task. With rescuers saving so many stranded California sea lions, it can be difficult to see the progress they are making. However, they say that it is all worth the effort after a few months when the sea lions are finally healthy enough to be released.
By Kirstin Pinto