Hundreds of stranded, sick sea lions taken to Marine Mammal Center

SAUSALITO, Calif. (KTVU) - At the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, workers and volunteers are dealing with a "crisis," taking in more than 100 animals in the past seven days. Nearly all were California Sea Lion pups that were significantly underweight and malnourished.

"We've never seen so many animals so early in the year," said Jeff Boehm, executive director for TMMC. "We're in crisis mode here."

California Sea Lions are born during the summer on the Channel Islands in Southern California, with pups typically staying with their mothers nearly a year, according to TMMC spokeswoman Laura Sherr.

But stranded sea lions started popping up as early as December, and by early February, workers were seeing about 10 animals a day. Sixteen sea lions were admitted to TMMC on Friday alone.

Volunteer Valerie Porter has been helping with their care.

"They're literally bones with skin on them. They're not the beautiful sea lions we see at the Golden Gate or in San Francisco," said Porter.

Friday afternoon, she and another volunteer tended to a sickly sea lion named "Tiki," who was brought to the center in early March. They gave him antibiotics and fluids, in hopes of perking him up.

"He is emaciated, weighing just 30 pounds when he should be closer to twice that. He is suffering from malnutrition and maternal separation," said Sherr.

Tiki is housed in a pen with several other struggling sea lions. Each has a different combination of color markings on its head to distinguish it from the others.

"They're just so sick and just so tired and so weak that they can't move around, let alone try to swim around and catch a fish," said Porter.

TMMC has taken in more than 560 California sea lions since the beginning of the year. That's ten times more than what's normal for this point in the season, said Sherr.

As for why rescuers are seeing stranded sea lions in record numbers this year, Boehm said they only have part of the answer, and are working with others to learn more answers about what's happening below the water's surface.

"We do know the feed fish aren't present where they normally are. We do know the ocean temperatures are some four to six degrees warmer than in a typical year where we have the typical off shore winds," said Boehm.

Experts believe unusually weak winds from the north are at least partly to blame for a change in ocean currents and conditions -- that would typically bring colder water and more fish to the surface.

"So a mom who's nursing a sea lion pup has to travel further and deeper than she would ordinarily -- meaning she's away from her pup longer," said Boehm. "Those pups aren't getting the nutrition they need."

That means TMMC and other rehabilitation centers around the state are working overtime to saving as many animals as they can.

"Some days it's a long day. Some days it's a hard day (when we can't save a patient) and some days it's a great day. And some days it's all those things," said Tamyra Thomas, volunteer.

According Sherr, since the sea lion pups are born on the Channel Island, a majority of the struggling animals have been washing up on the closest coastlines in Southern California. However, she said many are making it further north. She estimates TMMC has rescued nearly 600 sea lions – nearly a third of the sea lions that have been rescued on California beaches this year.

"Our rescue range extends as far north as Mendocino County and we have rescued a few sea lions that far north. I know of at least one case where one of the sea lions that was released from our care re-stranded in Oregon. The sea lions naturally migrate up and down the coast, not just along the California coastline, so it's not abnormal to see sea lions in Oregon," said Sherr.

If you come across a sea lion that appears to be stranded or sick, you're asked to keep your distance, take a photo if possible, and call the center's stranding hotline at 415-289-SEAL.