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Traveling Fur Seals Come “Fur Circle”

Bell and Clock Oso have been on tour up and down the coast of California over the past eight months. They may sound like rock stars, but are actually two northern fur seals whose story illustrates the cooperation that takes place on a regular basis among the different facilities in California that respond to marine mammals.

November 13, 2013

Bell (in the back) and Clock Oso swim in their pool during their first stay at The Marine Mammal Center, in March, 2013.
© The Marine Mammal Center

Bell was first rescued last spring by the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, while Clock Oso was rescued by the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. They were brought in at a time when rescue centers in the southern part of the state were overwhelmed with hundreds of starving sea lion pups. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, a federal agency, declared “an unusual morbidity event is occurring for California sea lions in Southern California.” They estimate that between January 1 and March 24, 2013, more than 900 malnourished and weak sea lions were rescued in the area from San Diego to Santa Barbara.

Bell and Clock Oso are constant companions.
© The Marine Mammal Center

Both the Marine Mammal Care Center and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center were hit hard by the sea lion crisis, which is thought to have been caused by a die-off of herring and a shortage of other fish that normally sustain sea lions. They each had a huge number of sea lion pups in their care, far beyond their capacity, so The Marine Mammal Center stepped in to help out.

More than 60 sea lion, elephant seal, and fur seal patients were transferred to our hospital, among them Bell and Clock Oso, in an effort to alleviate the patient load at Southern California facilities.

Both Bell and Clock Oso were suffering from malnutrition, but Bell had an additional problem: she never developed her secondary layer of external fur, leaving her vulnerable to the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean. At first, there was concern that she would not be suitable for release and might have to find a home in a zoo or aquarium.

Watch a video of the arrival of Bell and Clock Oso
at The Marine Mammal Center in March, 2013:

Bell and Clock Oso arrived at the Center in March, at a time when we were experiencing the usual springtime influx of elephant seal pups. Our patient load became very heavy too, at one point reaching more than 170 patients onsite. However, since The Marine Mammal Center has a much larger facility as well as more than 1,000 volunteers, we were still able to help our SoCal partners with many of their patients.

However, the North Coast Marine Mammal Center in Crescent City had availability, so after a brief stay with us the fur seals took a road trip further north. They continued their treatment at NCMMC throughout the summer, eating lots of fish and gradually putting on the pounds.

As their rehabilitation progressed, it was decided that, in spite of earlier concern about Bell, both she and Clock Oso would be able to return to their ocean home. In October, they were transferred back to The Marine Mammal Center, so Bell could benefit from the advanced systems we have that allow us to control salinity levels in our pools. An increase in salinity will help Bell develop the rich fur coat for which fur seals are famous (and which almost proved their downfall).

Bell swims in her pool, shortly after her initial arrival at The Marine Mammal Center in March, 2013.
© The Marine Mammal Center

In preparation for their eventual release, planning was begun to find a suitable release site. Fur seals are pelagic marine mammals, meaning they spend most of their lives far out at sea. Because of this, our fur seal patients are usually released by boat, often around the Farallon Islands.

Clock Oso (outside the pool) and Bell.
© The Marine Mammal Center

Fall is not a favorable time of year for a Farallon release, however, because of the arrival of great white sharks on their annual migration. Known whimsically as Sharktoberfest, the period from September through November can see the island waters turn into a gory feeding frenzy - clearly not a good time to be a seal or sea lion around the Farallon Islands!

So Bell and Clock Oso went back down south for their release. With help this time from the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, they traveled by boat out to Santa Rosa Island, one of the Channel Islands, where they were released back to their ocean home.

While The Marine Mammal Center covers an astonishing 600-mile rescue range along the California coast, there is even more territory to the north and south that is home to a rich diversity of marine mammal life. We work closely with other rescue centers up and down the coast, and this level of cooperation is vital to the nature of the work we do. You could say that Bell and Clock Oso are the poster children of this fundamental cooperation: they really did get a chance to come full circle, or in this case “fur circle!”

Clock Oso and Bell get ready to go home, with a crew from The Marine Mammal Center (Sausalito), the Marine Mammal Care Center (San Pedro), the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (Laguna Beach), and Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute (Santa Barbara).
© Pacific Marine Mammal Center/JoAnn Smith

Bell and Clock Oso (pictured here) are once again at home in the deep blue sea.
© Anna Kennedy, The Marine Mammal Center



Learn about Northern fur seals

Read more: SoCal Rescue Centers Get Helping Hand

Take Action: What You Can Do to Help Marine Mammals!


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