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California Sea Lion Crisis: Starving Pups Strand in Record Numbers

For the third year in a row, unusual numbers of sea lion pups are washing up on California shores. This year, they are stranding earlier than ever before.

February 19, 2015

Color-coded sea lion pups are piling up at The Marine Mammal Center.
© Pat Wilson, The Marine Mammal Center

Nearly every available pen and pool at The Marine Mammal Center is filled to the gills with California sea lions. But these are not the boisterous, playful animals you might be imagining. These young sea lions are barely more than skin and bone—some less than half the size they should be. In row after row of enclosures, they huddle together, sometimes piling atop the bright orange heating pads provided in each pen since they don’t have enough blubber to keep warm.

Most of them are 8-month-old pups that should be with their mothers right now. Instead they’ve washed ashore up and down the California coastline, completely emaciated and with little hope of survival on their own.

Their weak cries and wheezing coughs, brought on by secondary infections like pneumonia, add a sense of urgency to what is typically a quiet season at the Center. But Dr. Shawn Johnson, Director of Veterinary Science at the Center, is quick to assure people not to lose hope. Though they don’t quite look it yet, he says, these young sea lions are “the lucky ones.”

Now in the care of the experts at the Center, they’ll receive the benefit of four decades of experience caring for sick and injured marine mammals.

Pupping season starts early

These days, animal care volunteers are arriving in the wee hours of the morning—before the sun even rises—to start preparing food for the more than 140 hungry patients onsite in Sausalito, California. More animals await transport at our Monterey and San Luis Obispo satellite facilities farther south.

This grueling schedule is typical of our busy pupping season, which normally wouldn’t start until March, when newly weaned elephant seal and harbor seal pups begin to show up here in need of a helping hand. Sea lions that stay with their mothers for 10 to 11 months aren’t weaned until April or May, so that’s when we usually begin to see them stranding.  

But our first California sea lion pup of the 2015 pupping season actually arrived last year—on December 1. Rescued by the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center and brought to The Marine Mammal Center for rehabilitation, the pup was named “Chilly.”

Chilly was the first sea lion pup of the 2015 pupping season to be rescued by the Center.
© Adam Ratner, The Marine Mammal Center

Chilly was just five months old when he was rescued—unusually young for a sea lion on his own. Typically, a California sea lion his age would be with his mother on the Channel Islands, a protected area that serves as the primary rookery for these animals, where thousands of mother sea lions give birth and nurse their pups for 10-11 months.

Instead, Chilly somehow got separated from his mother and ended up in our care in desperate need of nutrition and fluids. We thought at first he was an anomaly—one of the few pups each year that get swept off a beach during heavy surf.

But then we got another starving sea lion pup, Rocky, the following day, and then the next day, Captain Howard came in. A few weeks later, Cupid, Navidad and Partridge showed up—all sea lion pups in similarly poor condition.

Throughout December and January, we continued to see more and more California sea lion pups. By the end of January, we had responded to 102 sea lions. And that’s when things really got bad.

California sea lion crisis

During the first 10 days of February, we responded to 100 more California sea lions—most of them starving pups. Since then, our 24-hour stranding hotline has been ringing off the hook, and our dedicated rescue volunteers have been sent out 10-15 times a day.

The Marine Mammal Center is truly in the middle of a California sea lion crisis right now.

Emaciated and exhausted, Whip was rescued on a beach near Half Moon Bay.
© The Marine Mammal Center

Typically this time of year, we might have about a dozen patients in our care. Right now, we are responding to about a dozen animals a day.

The expert staff and volunteers at the Center are providing life-saving care to these vulnerable, young animals. Because they don’t yet know how to eat fish, these sea lion pups must be individually tube-fed a special formula of ground-up fish, water and salmon oil multiple times a day.

Although many of these pups are stranding in a near-death state, we have been able to successfully rehabilitate and release some of these animals already. Chilly, Cupid, Navidad and Partridge all returned to the wild in January.

Watch a video of five sea lions being released at Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore on February 17.

Finding answers

At The Marine Mammal Center, we’re managing this crisis one sea lion at a time, but we are also committed to looking at the bigger picture. We know from our 40 years of experience rehabilitating these animals that this is an incredibly unusual occurrence.

We have never seen so many sea lions stranding this early in the year at such a young age and in such poor condition. This is especially concerning because California sea lions are considered sentinels of the sea; their struggles are often an indication that something more complex is happening in the ocean environment.

That’s why, in addition to rescuing and rehabilitating these animals, we are focused on conducting research and providing educational outreach to increase our overall understanding and awareness about the health of marine mammal populations and our ocean as a whole.

We’re doing everything we can to learn more about what could be causing these strandings, including performing detailed exams on patients and necropsies (animal autopsies) on any animal that doesn’t make it.

A sea lion pup is tube-fed to give it the necessary nutrition it needs to fatten up.
© Sarah van Schagen, The Marine Mammal Center


We are also working closely with researchers from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory who have been monitoring the mother-pup pairs at the rookeries on the Channel Islands. While the experts don’t yet know for sure why these animals are starving, they believe the mother sea lions may be having trouble finding enough food to support their nursing pups.

We will continue to share new information as we learn more about what’s happening and what we can expect in the coming months.

Leave Seals Be

During the first half of the year, mother seals and sea lions give birth at rookeries all along the California coast—and that means we rescue more and more pups.

If you see a marine mammal pup on a beach that looks sick or injured, please resist the urge to pick it up and remember that it’s always best to leave seals be. Instead, call our 24-hour rescue hotline at 415-289-SEAL (7325).

You Can Make a Difference

Help provide the critical care that these young California sea lions 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.


Stay in touch! Learn more about our pinniped patients and follow their fascinating stories.

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Learn about: California sea lions

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