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Record number of emaciated sea lion pups stranded on California beaches

This year, thousands of young sea lions have been found stranded on California beaches, cold, hungry and painfully thin. Marine mammal rescue centres have issued an international call for expert help and Canadians have been responding.

Canadian experts volunteering to help save them

Thousands of sea lion pups stranded in California

The National

6 years ago
2:51
Efforts to save stranded sea lion pups in California are being hindered by a lack of space in rescue centres. 2:51

The phone rings but Peter Wallerstein can't answer. Not because he's driving, which he is, but because he's on his other phone.

"OK, I'll see what I can do. Thanks man. Bye. Hello?"

It goes on for hours. In the last two months, he's received 20 times more calls than normal.

"It's like this all day, all night, too," Wallerstein says. "You get calls at one in the morning, three in the morning… We get 50 to 60 calls a day on these sea lions."

This year, thousands of young sea lions have been found stranded on California beaches, cold, hungry and skinny.

"These animals come up on the beach for a reason, because they're hypothermic mostly," Wallerstein says. "They don't have the body fat to keep them warm when they're in the water, so they come up and rest and warm up on the beach."

Wallerstein glides the truck through the sand towards a lifeguard on the beach who's waving his arms.

"Save little André, man!" he yells and points at a pup stranded on the rocks.

"He tried to get out," a passerby tells me. "And then the waves were taking him in and out, then he crawled back out."

Wallerstein is carrying what looks like a giant butterfly net. He walks over to the sea lion and throws it over the metre-long pup. It protests but doesn't have the energy to fight. The onlookers applaud.

Rescue centres full

Wallerstein then drags the animal to his truck and loads it into a plastic cage big enough to hold a Labrador retriever. He'll take it to a rescue centre in nearby San Pedro. But the facility only lets him bring three sea lions a day.

"It's a difficult situation here," he says. "Yesterday, we were told we can't bring in any in to the rehab centre which means we could rescue no animals."

Peter Wallerstein rescues a pup stranded on the rocks (Kim Brunhuber)
In his office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Justin Viezbicke is listening to a voicemail from a panicked beach-goer.

"There is a stranded baby seal near Lifeguard 24," the caller says. "It's stranded on the rocks."

Viezbicke is co-ordinating the U.S. government's response to the strandings. He says unusually warm ocean water caused fish to move away from the islands where the sea lions give birth.

This caged pup will spend up to three months at a recovery centre. (Kim Brunhuber)
"It all comes down to prey availability," he says. "Because the prey has moved further and deeper away, the moms are actually gone away longer from the pups. Because they're gone longer, the pups aren't getting enough (food) over time. They're leaving the islands early, and they're showing up on the shores here, starving to death."

Viezbicke says the warmer ocean water has more to do with local conditions in the eastern Pacific. "From my understanding, it doesn't have to do with global warming or anything along those lines. It's more of a local climate event that we're looking at." 

He hopes the warmer-than-normal water is a fluke and not a pattern. 

These healthy pups will be released soon at a secluded beach. (Kim Brunhuber)
"Sea lions can be indicative of what's going on out on the ocean, so they're a good species to help us keep an eye out on what's happening," he says.

There are no statistics on how many have died this year, he says, but more than 3,000 pups have been stranded, which is about 17 times the average.

"Those numbers are very high," he says. "Most if not all of our facilities are at maximum capacity, so it's a very challenging situation for us right now."

International SOS

The noise at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro can be deafening. At times, it sounds like a kennel with the barking of close to 140 sea lions. The small facility has run out of both room and staff. So it sent out an international SOS for volunteers who have experience handling the animals. Vancouver sea lion trainer Danielle Hyson came to lend a hand for a week in May.

"I've been really lucky to have the opportunity to work with stellar sea lions and northern fur seals in Vancouver, so I have a lot of skills that are useful to helping these rehab centres out," Hyson says.

She walks down a row of enormous cages, pointing at the skinny juveniles lying listless on the ground.

Danielle Hyson, about to release her first pup, is among a handful of volunteers from the Vancouver Aquarium. (Kim Brunhuber)
"They're extremely emaciated so you can see a lot of bones and skin, just clearly starving to death," Hyson says. "It's pretty tough to see. But then as they progress they get to be nice and fat." She points at a group of rotund sea lions splashing in and out of the pool. "You can see these animals here and they're almost ready for release."

Four healthy, recovered pups are herded individually into small plastic cages. Then staff drive to a secluded beach and unload the cages onto the rocks about five metres from the water. Hyson swings open a cage door and the sea lion ambles out awkwardly, following by another sea lion in an adjacent cage. The first one pauses, as though waiting for its companion, before they both waddle over the rocks and slip into the surf.

The staff looks on smiling as the pups disappear into the ocean. This is Hyson's first time releasing a captive sea lion.

'Incredible feeling'

"Oh, it's awesome," Hyson says. "This is what it's all about. Knowing that these animals have come so far from near-death on the beach to getting a second chance at life, is a really incredible feeling."

But, she acknowledges, as good as that feels, there is no end in sight this year. And climatologists say their understanding of the weather patterns mean the same number of strandings are predicted for next year.  

In his truck, Peter Wallerstein has to let down a man calling in yet another stranded sea lion.

"We're super busy with animals today," Wallerstein says. "I doubt I can get there today."

He's taken three sea lions to the rescue centre. That means he can't save any more. He's a paramedic with no hospital. If he finds another, he'll just have to put up a sign next to the animal asking passersby not to touch it, wait till tomorrow, and hope the pup can hang on, too.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.

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