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Two abandoned seal pups are rescued at Children’s Pool in La Jolla; one ‘did not survive’

A seal pup is pictured at the Children's Pool in La Jolla before SeaWorld employees arrived to care for it Dec. 23.
An abandoned seal pup is pictured at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla before SeaWorld employees arrived to care for it Dec. 23.
(Mandy Etpison)

Two harbor seal pups born early in the seal pupping season were deemed abandoned by their mothers and needed to be rescued from the Children’s Pool in La Jolla by SeaWorld San Diego.

The first pup was born Dec. 19, according to Pam Thomas, who volunteers with the Seal Society of San Diego, an organization that advocates for protection of harbor seals and sea lions in La Jolla.

An abandoned seal pup is held by a rescuer from SeaWorld at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla.
(Mandy Etpison)

“Someone called us and said there’s a white seal on the beach,” which Thomas said indicates a premature birth. The white comes from the pup’s lanugo coat, which is normally lost before birth.

Employees from SeaWorld, which performs marine animal rescues locally, arrived Dec. 23 to care for the pup, “but it did not survive,” Thomas said, attributing the information to contacts at SeaWorld who updated her.

SeaWorld representatives did not respond to the La Jolla Light’s requests for comment.

“No one saw [the pup] with its mother,” said Thomas, who called in the pup sighting to SeaWorld.

Once SeaWorld is notified of a possibly abandoned seal or sea lion pup and its location, representatives go out to verify the report and begin a 48-hour watch to see if the mother isn’t merely fishing in the ocean, Thomas said.

“We always watch, hoping the mother will come back,” Thomas said. “That would be the best-case scenario for the pup.”

SeaWorld also needs permission from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to access the Children’s Pool beach, Thomas said.

The second abandoned pup, born Jan. 17, was rescued Jan. 20 and is expected to survive, Thomas said. “It has a much better chance, mainly because it was full size and didn’t have its lanugo coat, which means it wasn’t premature. It was strong.”

This seal pup was picked up by SeaWorld after being found abandoned at the Children's Pool in La Jolla.
This seal pup was picked up by SeaWorld after being found abandoned at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla.
(Mandy Etpison)

Once a pup is rescued, SeaWorld performs “rehab and release,” often returning the pup to the ocean within a couple of months, Thomas said.

The process involves teaching pups how to find food, first alone and then among other seals, she said. “When they’re solidly ready, they tag them,” which helps both SeaWorld and the Seal Society keep track of the seals’ location and weight.

Seals haul out on the beach at the Children’s Pool to rest all year, but the beach is closed annually to public access Dec. 15 through May 15 for the seals’ pupping season.

Thomas, who is in her ninth pupping season, said closure of the beach is important because “the newborns are so vulnerable when they’re first born.”

The two pups found recently were early for the season, she said, as “births usually don’t begin until February. Mid-February, there are lots of births, and it tapers off through the end of March.”

Abandoned seal pups are common, Thomas said, “but the reasons for it are so varied. If something’s wrong with the pup,” such as a birth defect, “the mother will sense it and leave.”

Mandy Etpison, a La Jolla resident who often notifies the Seal Society of possibly abandoned pups and photographed the two recent ones, said that on both occasions “human footprints had been seen on the beach, evidence that people, in spite of all the closed-beach signs, still go down to the beach” when lifeguards are not present.

“I get very frustrated seeing the bad behavior by tourists and fishermen here toward the seals and sea lions … it’s important to leave them alone,” Etpison said.

During last pupping season, Thomas said, someone “let their dog off leash and it ran down onto the beach and flushed the seals,” meaning the seals escaped into the water.

One seal pup couldn’t keep up and its mother never came back to it, Thomas said. In other cases, fishermen on the cliffs have startled the seals, she said. ◆