Maybe it was the thought of all those herring and squid just dropping into their mouths or maybe a touch of sadness about leaving ol' Stubbs and Carly behind.
But whatever it was that led Kiki and Emilia to pause just a moment Saturday before bidding goodby to the Friends of the Sea Lion, it didn't stop them for long.
Once the two sea lion pups raised their whiskered snouts to take a good sniff of that familiar salt air, they bounded out of their cages and waddled like newborn sea turtles into the ocean off Laguna Beach's Crescent Bay Cove.
They barked--or was that a sea lion version of yahoo ?--and they dove and they bodysurfed in the waves near Seal Rock. Then they disappeared under water only to resurface a bit later, two little heads sticking close together.
"They were great!" said Mark Berger, 5, of El Toro, who had come to the beach with his mother, Jackie, a member of Friends, to watch the pups return to sea. "I liked the one that went 'uunngh !' They were happy because they were going back to their family."
But the occasion, the culmination of some two months of rehabilitation at the Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center on Laguna Canyon Road, was bittersweet for some.
"It's a strange feeling, because this is what you have been working for . . . ," said volunteer Mary Schuster, searching for the right words to express her mixed feelings about a job well-done. "It's just that they are wonderful to be around, so you kind of miss them. But then you know there will be more."
"It's a little hard to let go," added volunteer Janice Krcmar, 29, as she stood on the beach watching the bobbing heads of her former charges. "I've been with them since they came in. They were real skinny. It feels good to fatten them up so they can go back into the wild again."
Fattening up, so to speak, is the business of Friends of the Sea Lion, a nonprofit group of volunteers who care for Orange County's sick and injured seals and sea lions.
Currently at home at the center are sea lions Stubbs, about 2 years old, who is blind, and Carly, 5, on medication to control her epilepsy. The odd couple, who could never survive in the wild, will have a new home at the Houston Zoo in about a month.
Kiki and Emilia, about 8 months old, were the first sea lions that the organization released back into the ocean so far this year but may only be the first of dozens to be rehabilitated at the marine mammal center in 1988.
John Cunningham, a marine science teacher at Laguna Beach High School and one of the center's directors, blamed man-made pollutants dumped into the ocean for weakening the marine mammals' resistance to parasites and disease.
Although it is not uncommon for sea mammals to contract parasites from the fish they eat, mostly the opaleye perch, Cunningham said a scarcity of other foods combined with the effects of absorbing man-made chemicals may weaken a parasite-infested animal to the point of death.
Before they were nursed back to health, Kiki, retrieved by the Newport Beach police, and Emilia, driven to the center--illegally--by a woman who found her in Malibu, were nearly eaten alive by parasites. They were lethargic and so emaciated that their ribs protruded.
But neither Kiki, "the talker," nor Emilia, "the escape artist," showed even a hint of ill health Saturday as they gobbled down a snack of herring moments before being loaded into cages for the short trip to Crescent Bay. Herring has been a mainstay of the pups' diet at the center. Each downed about 5 pounds of it twice a day, plus another pound of so of squid.
Cunningham said each sea mammal nursed back to health at the center usually consumes about $200 worth of food and medicine.