About a year ago I was surfing off the shore in La Jolla on a relatively quiet morning when a baby sea lion popped its head out of the water to check me out. “Cute!” was my first reaction. Then it started swimming closer. And closer. Finally, it got close enough to bump its nose to my neoprene encased leg. At that point, “cute” battled in my mind with “please don’t bite me; please don’t bite me” and “where’s your mamma and is she feeling nervous?” I never saw mamma sea lion and the baby hung out for a while then cruised off to explore something else. But all day I felt like my presence in the ocean had been approved. (Yes, I realize that’s silly.)
That encounter is what comes to mind when I read about the alarming increase in stranded sea lion pups washing up on our local beaches. More than 1,000 baby sea lions have been stranded in Southern California since the first of the year. Normally that number would be less than 100. The federal agency that oversees ocean related issues, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), took the step of declaring an Unusual Mortality Event for California sea lions. In 20 years, that has happened less than 60 times in the entire United States. Though researchers have no conclusions yet, “[t]hese strandings are accompanied by observations of underweight pups on the breeding rookeries, signs that typically occur in association with food shortage,” said U.S. National Marine Mammal Commissioner and NMMF Scientific Advisory Board Member Dr. Frances Gulland. The increase in sea lions washing up on local beaches intensified over the Easter weekend and scientists have expressed serious concern since the traditional peak stranding season is just now beginning.
I took a call this afternoon from someone at Sunset Cliffs who found a stranded pup and didn’t know what to do. Although I spend my days at San Diego Coastkeeper working towards fishable, swimmable, drinkable water in San Diego County, I feel a little helpless about this. Luckily we have experienced partners who are the first-responders for this type of issue and are on the beaches right now to save the pups and in the labs trying to figure out how to stop the strandings. They need our support.
San Diego-based National Marine Mammal Foundation is helping rehabilitate the pups and you can help provide the funds they need to continue the work. Not only that, but the La Jolla-based Waitt Foundation issued a challenge grant in partnership with the San Diego Foundation that lets you increase your impact by joining a larger pool of funds.
Donations to the NMMF Emergency Fund will go directly to fund sea lion care and medical support. And please, if you see a stranded seal or sea lion, please do not approach or attempt to aide it. Contact our local stranding network or local lifeguards or harbor police. For live animals, SeaWorld responds (800-541-7325) and you find a dead animal, call NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Center (858-546-7162).
On a normal day, I encourage you to donate to San Diego Coastkeeper to help us continue our work. Today, I am sharing this information because when that baby sea lion nuzzled my leg, I took away the message that I am welcome in its home and have a responsibility to protect it any way I can. Today, donating to the NMMF Emergency Fund is what we can do.
All photos credit: Marine Mammal Care Center (Fort MacArthur)