12 min read

Thousands Of Sea Lions Are Orphaned Because Their Moms Can't Find Food

All these babies have left is each other.

Last year, Geoff Shester and a few friends were snorkeling off the coast of Santa Barbara Island, near Los Angeles. When they returned to their boat, they had an unexpected visitor - a sea lion pup had jumped onboard, and he was hungry.

"At first, people were generally amused to have the sea lion onboard, but they also didn't realize how skinny and emaciated it was," Shester told The Dodo. "They are supposed to be plump, but it was so skinny you could see its ribs and hip bones."

The sea lion pup who boarded Geoff Shester's boat | Geoff Shester

Shester, who works as a campaign director and senior scientist for the California branch of Oceana, knew exactly what was going on. The sea lion pup had probably been abandoned by his mom, which has been happening in California since sea lions have been having trouble finding food.

Shester and his friends did have food on the boat, but they didn't feed the pup. "That's a big no-no, as you can do more harm than good," Shester explained.

Pacific Marine Mammal Center

Instead, they tried to chase the sea lion pup off the boat, but he kept returning - again and again and again.

"The mood on the boat became somber," Shester said. "It was somewhat of a helpless feeling, as there was really nothing we could do. I was pretty devastated, because while I had been aware of the unusually high strandings, it is very different to see a young, suffering animal like that in person. It actually made me sick to my stomach."

Facebook/Pacific Marine Mammal Center

Unfortunately, this kind of incident is far from unusual. Over the last four years, sea lion pups have been showing up in quite unusual places looking for food - boats, cars, highways and even seafood restaurants. All of these pups are thin and starving.

While it might be easy to point an accusing fingers at the pups' moms for having abandoned them, the real culprit is lack of food. Sea lions rely on anchovies and sardines, but overfishing has led to the collapse of these fish stocks in recent years, leaving sea lions without much to fill their stomachs. And when sea lion moms can't get enough food for themselves, they leave their pups.

Facebook/Pacific Marine Mammal Center

"If the mother is having trouble keeping herself alive and having trouble feeding herself, the evolutionary strategy that they use is to at least abandon this pup and live to have more pups another day," Shester said.

Even when moms don't abandon their pups, they sometimes have to venture so far to find food that they can't make it back safely to their pups. Sea lions often give birth to their young on the Channel Islands, off the California coast, and leave them there for up to several days while they venture out to hunt.

Facebook/Pacific Marine Mammal Center

But with moms traveling further and further to find food, sometimes the babies are left starving on the islands. And so they venture out on their own, in search of mom or some help, ending up on the California shore - or in the middle of a highway.

Things started getting bad for sea lions in 2013, when over 1,400 pups were "stranded" along the U.S. west coast after losing their moms. But 2015 was the worst year so far, with over 2,500 recorded sea lion pup strandings. In reality, Shester believes these numbers could be even higher.

Photo supplied in 2015 | The Marine Mammal Center

"That's what we're able to count," Shester said. "Who knows how many are at other beaches or died at sea?"

These mass strandings have placed a lot of pressure on rescue and rehabilitation centers such as The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC) in Sausalito, California - organizations that often have dozens, if not hundreds, of sea lion pups in their care at one time.

The Marine Mammal Center

Dr. Cara Field, a veterinarian at TMMC, said she found it incredibly heartbreaking to see these animals in such poor condition.

"These animals are about 20 or so pounds when they're born," Field told The Dodo. "By the time they reach 6 months of age, they should be 40 or 50 pounds. But we were seeing them still coming in around 20 pounds. That means that they were just getting enough nutrition from the moms. But that's not the moms' fault. It means that the moms were not getting enough nutrition to nurse those pups to get them up to a weight where they survive."

Facebook/Pacific Marine Mammal Center

As sick as these sea lion pups are, Field says that it's good that they have each other.

"They're not brothers and sisters, of course, but they're very social animals as a species," Field said. "So you find them in big groups and they lie on top of each other. Sometimes there's some barking and a little bit of sparring, but in general they're very social, and they actually do better with some other sea lions around."

Facebook/Pacific Marine Mammal Center

So far, 2017 appears to be a better year for sea lions, with fewer pups being abandoned, according to Shester. But at the same time, sea lions are facing another big threat - domoic acid poisoning.

Domoic acid poisoning is caused by toxic algal blooms, which occurs when heavy rains wash chemicals and other kinds of pollution into the oceans. This, in turn, contaminates the fish, and whoever eats the fish is poisoned. While domoic acid has been a threat for many years, there was a particularly large domoic acid outbreak last year, Shester explained.

The Marine Mammal Center/B. Percevero

When sea lions are poisoned by domoic acid, it wreaks havoc on their bodies, according to Shester. The toxins enter the sea lion pups' bloodstream, which can cause seizures, heart disease and death. It can also cause neurological issues.

"A lot of times, domoic acid [poisoning] is like instant Alzheimers," Shester said. "The animals are basically very disoriented, they can't remember things, they lose track of where they are."

While it's not yet clear how this domoic acid outbreak will affect sea lions this year, it definitely won't help.

The Marine Mammal Center/Michael Hanrahan

"Sea lions really aren't catching a break," Shester added. "Whether this domoic acid outbreak leads to the fifth year of consecutive unusually high mortality for sea lion pups - I don't think anyone really knows yet. But domoic acid can affect both pups as well as adults."

However, despite the new threats, Field and others are hopeful that things are looking up for the sea lion population.

"We have biologists that go out to the rookeries, and they weigh a number of the pups every year so we can get some average numbers and date, and this year pup weights were up - they were actually pretty good," Field said. "So that's a great indicator that the moms are out there finding food and that they're able to feed their pups."

Facebook/The Marine Mammal Center

In the meantime, though, they're just focused on raising the little pups who still need their help.

If you'd like to help provide food and care for these abandoned babies, you can make a donation to TMMC. You can find out how to volunteer or contribute in other ways.

If you live in California, find out what to do if you see a sea lion pup who might need help.