Sea lion pup found at WindanSea part of ‘unusual mortality event’

By Ashley Mackin

SeaWorld’s rescue line received several phone calls about a small sea lion pup at WindanSea beach on April 15. The first calls came in at 6:30 a.m., and the pup was picked up at 11 a.m. While SeaWorld’s Animal Rescue Team checks its stranding hotline several times a day, it can take several hours before they arrive at the scene to observe reported animals in distress.

So, what happens when a someone phones the hotline? “There is no cookie cutter way we handle things,” said SeaWorld Communications Director David Koontz.

When the team gets a call or a message, they might try to contact the person that left the message to see if they are still at the scene and can provide additional information, or they might call a lifeguard or local law enforcement familiar with the area to see if this is an unusual situation.

However, Koontz said, “In the vast majority of cases, we’ll get in the truck and go out and observe the animal ourselves and make a determination as to whether that animal needs to be rescued.” One challenge when responding to calls is that not every animal reported needs assistance.

When it comes to determining which ones are taken to SeaWorld’s rescue and rehabilitation center, Koontz said SeaWorld relies on the judgment of the rescue team. “If you look at it collectively, you’ve got an organization with a couple of hundred years of experience in dealing with rescuing and rehabilitating and returning animals to the sea,” he said. “So that experience they have helps them make a pretty accurate assessment on an animal that may be in distress.”

Obvious signs the animal is in distress is if it is underweight, lethargic or has a wound or injury that appears to be from human activity, such as a cut from a boat propeller or being tangled in fishing line.

The pup found at WindanSea was determined to be malnourished, as it was underweight and dehydrated, an unfortunate trend in sea lions rescued in La Jolla and elsewhere along the San Diego coastline.

With National Marine Fisheries calling this an “unusual mortality event,” sea lion pups are not able to find food. Koontz said sea lions make up more than 90 percent of SeaWorld’s rescues, which have been substantial this year.

In San Diego alone, SeaWorld rescued approximately 340 animals, 320 of which were sea lions, 305 of which were pups. Between San Diego and Santa Barbara, 1100 sea lion pups have been rescued this year.

While the exact cause of this spike is unknown, Koontz said, “We do know there has been a lack of food for pups where they would normally find food when they wean from their mothers.” Furthermore, the pups are not as experienced in foraging on their own. “If the food the pups would normally eat is not available to them in the area they would normally be ... they don’t know where to go, or aren’t strong enough to go, where that food is,” he said.

One theory is that the mothers aren’t finding the food they need and are weaning their pups sooner than normal. A “double-whammy” for pups, not having the fish they normally eat available also contributes to the dehydration, as the pups get nourishment and hydration from the fish.

When malnourished, sea lions get colder faster, especially in the water, which is why sea lions will come up onto beaches and rest on rocks warmed by the sun. The pup at WindanSea was found on the rocks, likely warming up. It is currently being evaluated at SeaWorld.

National Marine Fisheries representatives could not be reached for comment regarding any progress or updates in the investigation as to the starvation trend by deadline.

SeaWorld Hotline

■ To report a stranded sea lion, phone SeaWorld’s hotline at (800) 541-SEAL (7325)