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Sea Lion Missing Lower Jaw Feeds Scientists' Curiosity

December 01, 2000|PETE THOMAS

She came ashore suffering from seizures and minus her lower jaw. A week later, she developed a severe case of pneumonia.

Her future seemed as bleak as a wind-swept sea on a cold, winter day but now, more than three months later, it seems as bright as the summer sun.

After being rescued from a Ventura beach in early August, and nursed back to health at the Marine Mammal Care Center at Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro, the beleaguered California sea lion has been bade a fond farewell and is seemingly living high on the hog at the Coronado Islands off Baja California.

Hers is an interesting case. The seizures were symptoms of a potentially fatal condition called domoic acid toxicity, caused by the ingestion of fish affected by a particular alga. The subsequent pneumonia was possibly the result of the sea lion's inhaling saltwater during a seizure.

She spent her first few days at the facility sedated, given fluids under the skin. She was then treated with antibiotics and at one point was placed in a tent with a medicated vaporizer "to get the mucous out of her lungs so she could breathe," said Jackie Jaakola, director of the care facility, which treats about 100 sea lions a year.

All this was business as usual for Jaakola--one of only two full-time employees at the nonprofit facility--and a small cadre of overworked volunteers.

But what was unusual about patient 00-75, and what attracted the interest of scientists beyond the care center, was that she had lost her lower jaw, probably to injury, at some point during her life and was still able to feed and fend for herself in an often hostile environment.

So, in an effort involving the New England Aquarium, the educational Web site WhaleNet and the Los Angeles Unified School District's Center for Marine Studies, 00-75 was given a more personal name, Malia, meaning "calm waters" in Hawaiian.

She was then fitted with a satellite tracking device and set free.

Scientists and schoolchildren are monitoring her movements in an attempt, according to care center spokesman Hugh Ryono, "to discover the niche that this animal has carved out for herself and [to learn more about] her special feeding needs and abilities."

Satellite tracking is not done on a large scale with marine creatures, mostly because the tags cost $5,000 or more and don't always stay on.

So, Malia is unique in more ways than one, as one of only a few pinnipeds to have been put under this kind of microscope. Her tag could last as long as six months.

After her release Nov. 11, off White's Point in San Pedro, she remained within five miles of the Palos Verdes Peninsula for about a week, hauling out on occasion and not venturing far from shore.

When she decided it was time to go, she traveled south at a fair clip and on Nov. 21, readings showed she was about 100 miles away, beyond San Diego. The previous day she had visited the Coronado Islands, just south of the border. The latest readings indicate that she has found a temporary home at the Coronados, which are about 10 miles offshore and a popular spot for pinnipeds.

With far more bark than bite, it's clear by her movements, close to the coast and not into extremely deep water, that Malia is aware of her handicap and careful to avoid encounters with sharks and other potential enemies.

Asked if she were surprised at how well Malia has fared without chompers, Jaakola responded, "Nothing with these wild animals ever surprises me. It's survival of the fittest out there and the successful ones are the ones that find a way to compensate."

Even if that means getting a helping hand from humans.

Malia's progress can be tracked at


Malia's instincts told her to head south, which is a good thing because up north, off Monterey, killer whales have been terrorizing the local pinniped population.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a researcher for the American Cetacean Society, was aboard the Sea Wolf a week after Malia's release and witnessed a nature show as spectacular as any on television. The vessel first encountered more than 1,000 common dolphins, many of them with calves. The passengers then came upon about 40 humpback whales, feeding not on krill but on anchovies and sardines.

Three of them swam to the boat, casting plumes of whale breath across the deck. It takes a serious whale watcher to appreciate this phenomenon, since whale breath is anything but fresh.

Skipper Richard Ternullo then guided the vessel to an area where about 80 sea lions had corralled a large school of bait fish and were having the times of their lives--most of them, anyway.

Schulman-Janiger noticed that one of the sea lions was more red than brown. Then came a report from a nearby vessel indicating the presence of killer whales.

The Sea Wolf arrived in time to see four of them--an adult male, two females and a juvenile--stalking another large group of sea lions that had corralled another school of bait fish.

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