Since January more than 1,800 sick and starving sea lion pups have washed up on Southern California’s coast. With five times more patients than 2013, the worst season in recent memory, animal care experts from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre are headed down to lend a hand with the growing sea lion stranding crisis. While it’s not unusual to have some pups strand each spring as they leave their mothers, this year’s pupping season is setting records, and it’s not over yet.
“Scientists aren’t totally sure what’s causing it, but warming seawater associated with El Niño is likely involved,” said Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium. “Because of warmer water their usual prey species aren’t as abundant as they should be, which forces the mothers to leave their pups longer while they search for food, and may also result in weaning of underweight pups earlier than normal.” That leaves the malnourished young pups — which don’t yet have the skills to forage on their own — to try and find their own food.
Rescue centres like the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro and The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito are overwhelmed with the number of pups arriving daily, and are in urgent need of skilled volunteers with the expertise to help with the hands-on, around-the-clock work.
That’s where team members from Vancouver Aquarium are stepping up. Here in B.C. the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre rescue about 150 marine mammals each year and rehabilitates them for release back to their natural habitat. The team assists distressed marine mammals including elephant seals, sea otters, Steller sea lions, California sea lions, harbour porpoises, sea turtles, dolphins, false killer whales and killer whales; but newborn harbour seals are the most commonly admitted patients. Although the non-profit Vancouver Aquarium has limited funding for international animal rescues, it is doing what it can to contribute to the effort. Some members of the team are even volunteering their own time and resources to help out.
“Our skilled veterinary and animal care teams have years of experience dealing with large numbers of marine mammals in acute care situations. They are exactly what these rescue centres need in their current crisis,” said Dr. Haulena, who was the staff veterinarian at the Sausalito rescue centre from 1997 to 2006, before joining Vancouver Aquarium. “At the same time, this is a unique opportunity for our staff to learn how other facilities work, share experiences, and develop valuable professional relationships. We’re all in this together.”
Sion Cahoon, veterinary technologist at the Rescue Centre, is one team member who volunteered to head south and help out. Since March 7 she’s been splitting her time between two rescue centres on the California coast. On the phone from Sausalito she said rescuers there are putting in long, exhausting days.
“It’s hard to understand the magnitude of this stranding event, unless you can see it with your own eyes,” she said. “The rescue centre I’m at this week had, as of today, 225 patients onsite. Close to 20 new pups are being admitted every day, with many more that aren’t able to be rescued.”
Vancouver Aquarium employees and volunteers will do shifts in California, to ensure that our own animal health department and Rescue Centre are still able to respond to animals in distress here. Today, two more personnel leave to assist, followed by another group in April. In total, 10 members of the Vancouver Aquarium team are expected to contribute their expertise.
Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, presented by Port Metro Vancouver and supported by Teekay Shipping, is a hospital for sick, injured or orphaned marine mammals. The Rescue Centre rescues stranded marine mammals and rehabilitates them for release back into their natural habitat. Donate to the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre today.