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Heavy Winter Storms Bring Orphaned Elephant Seal Pups Ashore

After a record year of elephant seal rescues in 2016, our first elephant seal pups of 2017 have arrived onsite.

February 3, 2017

One of the first elephant seal black coat pups of 2017. Photo by Bill Hunnewell © The Marine Mammal Center

Last year at this time, the California coast was experiencing what some called a “Godzilla El Niño” in the form of frequent storms, heavy rains, strong winds and rough surf. Those dangerous coastal weather conditions often cause an influx in pup patients at The Marine Mammal Center. In 2016, that was certainly the case as we rescued 232 elephant seal pups—the most ever in our 42-year history!

Although the El Niño climate pattern has since dissipated, a series of storms hammered the West Coast in early 2017, triggering avalanches, mudslides and flooding, with some counties in the Bay Area receiving twice the normal amount of rainfall. Experts say 2017 could end up being one of the wettest wet seasons in California’s recorded history.

This is also the time of year that young elephant seals and harbor seals are born on beaches up and down the California coast. These pups stay on the beach while their mothers nurse them for about a month, but heavy storms like the ones we’ve seen this winter can cause these pups to be washed off the beach by hazardous surf.

Kehoe, an elephant seal black coat pup. Photo by Bill Hunnewell © The Marine Mammal Center

If a storm is strong enough, entire beach areas can erode and disappear, forcing mother seals and their pups to find another spot to haul out. Once out at sea, the pups are not strong enough to swim on their own and can easily get separated from their mothers. The lucky pups that survive a rough storm may wash up on nearby beaches in need of a helping hand.

Our marine mammal experts suspect this may be the reason why we have a number of northern elephant seal pups in our care right now. On January 14, our trained rescue volunteers brought in the first elephant seal pup of 2017. The young male was named “Steinbot” by the members of the public who called our rescue hotline when they spotted him alone on Kehoe Beach, which is located near a known elephant seal haul-out area in Point Reyes National Seashore.

Just one day later, Steinbot was joined by Kehoe, a female pup spotted alone on the very same beach. During their admit exams, our veterinary experts noted that both Steinbot and Kehoe had abrasions on their chins and flippers, indicating that they may have been tossed around in the rough surf along the rocky coastline.

Steinbot and Kehoe are both covered in a dark, velvety fur called a “lanugo coat.” Elephant seal pups only retain this coat for about a month. After weaning, they begin to shed this black coat to reveal a sleek, silver-gray coat. Within a year, the coat will turn silvery brown.

Steinbot (on the left), the first elephant seal black coat pup of 2017. Photo by Bill Hunnewell © The Marine Mammal Center

This black coat and the tooth buds our veterinarians spotted during the admit exams tell us that Steinbot and Kehoe were only a few weeks old when they were rescued, which is too young for them to be separated from their mothers.

Because Kehoe and Steinbot would still be nursing with their mothers at this age and don’t have the teeth necessary to eat whole fish, they are currently being fed our specially developed formula—what we call a “fish smoothie” —which is made from mashed-up herring, salmon oil and water. Pups like Kehoe and Steinbot are tube-fed this fishy formula during feedings throughout the day and evening.

Since mid-January, we’ve rescued five more elephant seal pups that have joined Steinbot and Kehoe for several months of rehabilitation.

Although Kehoe and Steinbot are now strong enough to stay in a pen with 24/7 pool access, some of the younger elephant seals in our care are still too weak to spend time in the water without some supervision. These pups stay overnight in a dry pen but they receive supervised “swim time” so that they can build up their strength without risk of drowning.

Volunteers tube feed elephant seal Stormy Night. © The Marine Mammal Center

When our animal husbandry and veterinary team determine that these young pups are ready to progress to solid food, our animal care volunteers will begin daily sessions of “fish school” to get them interested in eating whole fish. During fish school, volunteers drag fish on a string through the pool or offer them by hand until the pups learn that fish are for eating.

Once Kehoe, Steinbot and their pen-mates get the hang of eating fish, they’ll have to learn how to forage on their own and compete for fish with other animals. When they’ve shown they are ready to survive on their own, they’ll be released back into the wild to get a second chance at life.

As mother seals continue to give birth to pups like Kehoe and Steinbot along the California coast, it’s important to remember that the best thing you can do for these animals is to leave seals be by keeping your distance and alerting the experts if you see a seal in distress. For marine mammals along the California coast from Mendocino County to San Luis Obispo, call The Marine Mammal Center’s 24-hour hotline at 415-289-SEAL (7325).



You Can Be a Marine Mammal Hero

Generous people like you help provide the critical care that pups like Kehoe and Steinbot need to be successfully returned to their ocean home. Your support goes a long way to help all of our pinniped patients get a second chance at life.


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