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SAN PEDRO : Marine Care Center Aids Stranded Seals

March 23, 1995|SUSAN WOODWARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's one of those cruel twists of nature.

About this time every year, dozens of baby northern elephant seals swim ashore to the California coast.

Many are taking a much-needed rest after making the journey along ocean currents from their birthplaces on the Channel Islands. They've survived great white sharks and killer whales on the way and learned how to dive for food, and they probably will live to adulthood.

But others have not fared so well. Underweight and dehydrated by the time they reach shore, these pups are near death.

Northern elephant seals experience an extreme weaning process--they are abandoned by their mothers and left to forage for themselves at just four weeks of age.

Those who lack strength die unless they are discovered. If they are lucky, the Marine Mammal Care Center at Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro takes over where the mother left off.

"When they start getting teeth, the mother says, 'Nursing season is all over,' " said Don Zumwalt, the center's director. "If we didn't come along, they would just die on the beach."

The center is the National Marine Fisheries receiving site for stranded seals and sea lions found from Ventura to Long Beach.

Volunteers bring the pups back to health before releasing them to the Pacific two to three months later, Zumwalt said.

Three pups found this season on the beaches at Point Mugu and Malibu are being cared for at the center now.

Zumwalt estimates that at least 20 elephant seals and a similar number of harbor seals will be taken there by the end of spring.

For anyone who comes across a seal lying on the shore, the first words of advice are to leave the animal alone.

"Do not put water on them. Do not harass them. Do not try to pet them," said Zumwalt, adding that it is a federal offense to interfere with the animals in any way.

People who find an abandoned pup should contact a local animal control agency such as the Humane Society. Trained personnel will inspect the pup to see if it needs any human assistance.

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