Rescued sea lions housed at SeaWorld in Mission Bay. / Photo by Dave Schwab
A surprising influx of malnourished and dehydrated sea lions has SeaWorld San Diego and its trainers working overtime to nurse them back to health before returning them to the wild.
More than 550 marine mammals have been rescued so far in 2015, which is more than double the usual number, said SeaWorld spokesman David Koontz.
“We saw sea lion pups coming in in December weaned by their mothers months earlier than normal,” Koontz said. “They were coming in very emaciated, 18 to 20 pounds as opposed to (normal) 35 pounds or more, only a few pounds above their birth weight. They’ve been very malnourished and in some cases, bags of bones.”
In response, SeaWorld temporarily suspended its popular sea lion and otter show for a few weeks so trainers could assist with the park’s marine mammal rescue and rehabilitative efforts. SeaWorld has resumed its regular sea lion and otter show as of today (March 26) in Sea Lion and Otter Stadium.
The informational presentations lasting 15 to 20 minutes include segments helping park guests better understand how SeaWorld rescues and rehabilitates marine mammals to give them a second chance at life. The presentations also give visitors insight into how SeaWorld cares for and trains its sea lions.
On March 20, Beach & Bay Press got a behind-the-scenes peek at painstaking efforts to physically stabilize the condition of marine mammals and then build them back to health. After the sea lions receive four to eight weeks of time- and worker-intensive rehabilitation, the trainers prepare the mammals for a return to the ocean.
“While we continue to rescue a record number of marine mammals this year, over the past several days, we’ve seen the average number of daily rescues decrease slightly, and we’ve hired some additional rescue staff,” said Mike Scarpuzzi, SeaWorld’s vice president of zoological operations.
“Although we will continue to keep some of our sea lion and otter trainers in our Animal Rescue Center, we’ve been able to bring a few back to Sea Lion and Otter Stadium,” he said.
The condition of many sea lions, particularly those rescued early on, has been so poor that they’ve had to be force fed and actually retrained to eat, Koontz said.
“These pups have not eaten for a while, so their systems have kind of shut down: They can’t eat whole fish,” he said. “It’s a double-whammy because they also get much of their water from fish, so they’re also coming in dehydrated.”
SeaWorld San Diego has rescued a record 570 marine mammals (with 549 of those being sea lions) so far this year. The park has also donated $25,000 to other California rescue centers to assist them with the daunting task of rescuing and rehabilitating more than 1,800 stranded sea lion pups this year along the state’s coast.
During the 2:45 p.m. sea lion interim show on March 20, SeaWorld trainer Kelly Punner said, “530 marine mammals, double what we usually rescue in an entire year,” have already been recovered. She noted lack of anchovies and sardines in the ocean are causing sea lion mothers to be away from their pups longer to gather food, noting that the low food supplies are also causing mothers to wean their pups “much sooner than they usually would.”
A couple of sea lions in the show, in fact, were rescued and rehabbed by SeaWorld. Efforts to repatriate them back to the ocean proved unsuccessful, so they were “recruited” and trained to join one of the park’s live marine mammal shows.
SeaWorld seal lion trainer George Villa pointed out there are “many theories” as to why sea lions and other marine mammals are being stranded in such large numbers. Adding scientists are researching “the conditions that led to that,” Villa said, “We do know there’s been a shortage of the (bait) fish, sardines and anchovies, that they feed on.”
In the meantime, Villa noted rehabilitating sick and dying marine mammals “is our priority right now.”
Recuperating in holding pens behind the park’s seal and otter stadium, sea lions, in various stages of recovery, were being ministered to. Trainers and staff were physically restraining animals, while tubes were being inserted into their stomachs, and pumps were used to interject life-giving fluids to newly rescued marine mammals. Those “patients” were also being given vitamins and medicine to improve their health and get them back to eating whole fish.
As the condition of recovering sea lions improves, they are then “upgraded” to groupings of marine mammals requiring less and less intensive care, before eventually being repatriated back to the ocean.
“Sea lions that are not lethargic, that are a little more vocal, a little more feisty — we really want to see that,” said Koontz, about how trainers can read the improving condition of marine mammals under their care.
Scarpuzzi said the sea lion and otter show will resume once the sea lion crisis abates.
“We will assess our personnel requirements weekly, and continue to augment our rescue team with sea lion trainers until we are confident they are no longer needed to assist with our rescue efforts,” he said. “Only when we have the appropriate number of trainers back at sea lion and otter stadium will we restart our 'Sea Lions Live' show.”