By Chuck Graham
The little orphaned sea lion pup struggled to climb into the kayak. Tuckered out, cold, shivering and real hungry, the 7-month-old pinniped was on its own, abandoned by its beleaguered mother, no doubt starving herself.
This has been a record year for abandoned sea lion pups on the Southern California coastline.
Eventually the sea lion pup managed to climb into my friend's kayak, and eventually found its way into his lap to seek some much needed warmth. The pup stayed with us for over two hours on the water until we landed in a half moon-shaped cove on the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island. Reluctantly the young sea lion flopped out of the kayak and stumbled onto the cobbled beach before finding a warm patch of sand to haul out in.
This has been a record year for abandoned sea lion pups on the Southern California coastline, and these are the lucky ones who are discovered by people walking the beach and able to contact a local Marine Mammal Rescue Center. From there the pups are retrieved by volunteers, rehabilitated and then eventually released in the open ocean near haul out sites. Unfortunately scores of other pups go undiscovered, hauled out on inaccessible portions of the coast, or out on any of California's eight windswept Channel Islands. These are the unlucky ones where nature simply takes its course.
"These atmospheric warm water events are catastrophic on the food chain," said Dr. Brent Stewart, senior research scientist at the Hubbs – Sea World Research Institute. "Sea lion pups are coming ashore from the islands in poor condition."
Over the past year warm currents in Southern California waters have wreaked havoc on cold upwelling systems that generate nutrient rich waters. Portions of the food web like squid and baitfish have been forced to retreat to deeper, colder waters, making things tough on female sea lions and their hungry 6–to–8–month–old pups. Beginning in the fall of 2014, mother sea lions began heading further out into deeper waters to search for more reliable food sources, leaving no choice but to abandon their offspring.
In February, 2015 there were 850 sea lion pups collected off mainland beaches. In March there 1,050 pups retrieved, and in April there were 560. Thus far, almost 3,000 sea lion pups have been retrieved and placed in Marine Mammal Rescue Centers up and down Southern California.
"Some of this is disease," continued Dr. Stewart, referring to hookworm. "Most of it though is dehydration and malnutrition."
Some of the pups that are rehabilitated are affixed with Global Positioning System (GPS). Using satellite telemetry scientists are tracking the movements of these animals. A number of them are scouring the Southern California coast for food, with a few dipping as far south as Baja California.
Despite the abundance of malnourished sea lions in Southern California, their overall numbers are increasing. There are roughly 250,000 to 300,000 California sea lions in Southern California waters, with 65,000 sea lion pups born last year, their populations robust as ever. Yet, Dr. Stewart wasn't optimistic on a quick recovery.
"There are reports of warm water upwelling in the Galapagos Islands now," he said. "It looks like an El Nino following this event, so we'll see what happens to them this year. We suspect births will decline again."
Later in the afternoon on the same day, I was paddling west from Scorpion Anchorage near the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island. Working my way toward Cavern Point, I found a lone sea lion pup straining to get out of the water on wave-battered rocks cloaked in acorn barnacles. Its ribs were showing and it took a lot of energy for it to get just a few feet above the water and out of the chilly northwest winds. For three days it returned to the same spot soaking in the warm morning sun, but the pup's uncertain future always relying on that cold, nutrient-rich water for survival.
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