When Jody Westberg opens the Dutch door of a cage made of plastic-coated chain-link fence, the reaction is immediate. Fat, shiny little sea lions rush the half-door barking at her. You have fish, they seem to say. We want it.
The marine mammals are baby California sea lions that ended up at SeaWorld rescue after they stranded themselves on San Diego County beaches. They're all about seven months old, since almost all sea lion moms give birth around June 15, the experts say. These six look fat and healthy, and they should. They're between six and eight weeks into their stay at the rescue facility and they are almost ready to end rehab and go back to the Pacific.
A few cages down, about 15 sea lions look very different. Their skin hangs on bones, they barely move around, and they crowd together for warmth. They've arrived in the past few days, bringing SeaWorld's rescue count to 61.
Since December, the SeaWorld Rescue Team has been in high operations mode, picking up emaciated baby sea lions from as far away as Camp Pendleton and as close as Pacific Beach. The rescue compound is packed with baby sea lions in various stages of recovery, from those so weak they're fed through tubes three times a day to fat little babies barking at each other.
Although the core rescue team is five people, almost a dozen SeaWorld employees are working on sea lion rescues, Westberg says. The facility is the only sea turtle and pelican rehab facility in the region.
"If you ask people who work here, rescue is one of our favorite things to do," she says. "The company gives us the resources we need — in 2013, we didn't have to turn away a single animal."
The team's efforts could prove particularly important this year because a new, worse calamity of starving babies washing up seems to be unfolding. So far this month, about 200 stranded sea lions have ended up at the six marine-mammal care centers between the border and Ventura, according to Jim Milbury of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. By comparison, the number was at 35 in 2014.
In 2013, a year bad enough for NOAA to declare an unusual mortality event, the centers had 135 sick and starving animals. By March of 2013, nearly 1100 sea lions had turned up on Southern California beaches, with the highest numbers in March. That's the normal stranding season, Milbury says. NOAA has not yet declared an “unusual mortality event” this year.
California sea lions breed and give birth on islands in warmer water, from the Channel Islands down through Baja. Pups and moms stay together with mom nursing them until just a little while before mom has the next pup. (They're born one at a time.) Moms leave the babies on the island while they go out into the ocean to catch fish. Normally they're gone for just a day or two, but in 2013 and, it appears, again this year, the moms are having to venture farther from the breeding grounds to find the food they need to produce milk.
"Now the moms are gone for four to six days and they're coming back with less," says Keith Matassa, the executive director of the Laguna Beach Pacific Marine Mammal Center. "The pups are already underweight when they go looking for mom and food."
SeaWorld Rescue Team veterinarian Hendrik Nollens says a stark sign of how hungry the washed-up pups are is that they come into SeaWorld with rocks in their stomachs. The arrival x-rays for one sea lion revealed the critter had four pounds of rocks in its belly while another had eaten a little over a pound of rocks.
"It's something they do to give themselves a sense that they're full," Nollens says. "After we get them started eating, they'll regurgitate them by themselves."
When they first arrive, getting them eating isn't as easy as tossing fish, however. By the time the pups end up ashore, they've gone a while without eating and their bodies have started to shut down. They have liver damage, diarrhea, and tapeworms and other parasites. They've stopped grooming themselves and they're vulnerable to secondary problems.
"We have to feed them through tubes up to three times a day until they start eating on their own," Nollens says. It can take as long as 10 to 12 days before they decide to eat on their own — but sooner is better for everyone.
Those feedings are a team effort, because as cute as they are, they have ferocious teeth and they bite. Westberg displays the gloves they wear when they have to handle the seals — gloves that are as heavy as welding gloves. Asked how much a bite hurts, she shrugs. Part of the job.
The animals have symbols shaved into their fur, a marking system that lets caregivers identify them. A marker-board chart hangs on the gate to the pen with the new arrivals, with information that caregivers may need.
"We keep electronic medical records for each one from the time they get here," Nollens says. "We're checking them for diseases and parasites and tailoring treatment to each animal."
While they're outside during the day, the keepers move them inside at night. "We have to load them up and move them inside because they can't stay warm," Nollens explained. "They don't have enough fat to stay warm."
They will soon enough, and the rescue team will deliver them to a beach at an undisclosed location and watch them roll out of the transport cage, hop around for a second in the sand, and run into the ocean.
"We know the goal from the beginning is to get them back in the wild," Westberg says. "There are special cases where an animal becomes very dear, but you make sure you avoid doing anything that will teach them that they should like humans — that will harm them in the long run."
If you find a sea lion or a seal on the beach, keep your distance, Westberg says. Beside’s their teeth, they carry diseases and parasites that transfer easily to humans. And you can frighten an injured animal and send it back into the water where it won't get help.
Westberg says to notify lifeguards if there are any around. Many animals get out of the water when they're healthy. Just being out of the water doesn't mean they're in trouble. Someone should monitor them — the lifeguards are trained and know what to do.
"We don't pick up every animal right away; some we monitor for 24 hours," Westberg says. "We haven't abandoned them and we're not ignoring you. But we don't take animals that don't need our help."
And think of that selfie pic as self-incriminating: sea lions (and many seals) are federally protected and getting too close to them is illegal. Worse, Westberg says, it's a sign of how stupid people are.
"I wouldn't be very proud of snapping a selfie of me with a dying animal," she says.