Nine malnourished and dehydrated California sea lion pups rest in the nursery… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)
The sea lion pups jostled with one another in the small pool, diving for the herring and capelin being thrown at them and popping up with fish tails poking out of their little mouths.
"The difference a month makes!" JoAnn Smith, a volunteer at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, remarked as the pups tangled in the water. "Amazing!"
The months-old sea lions had come to the care center starving and struggling to survive. They were malnourished, lethargic, ribs and hip bones showing through their smooth dark fur. Their mothers had left them to forage for food, and they were stranded, fending for themselves.
PHOTOS: Caring for sea lion pups
"When they come in," Smith said, "they're so sick, so fragile."
From Santa Barbara to San Diego, marine mammal sanctuaries have taken in waves of emaciated sea lion pups at rates significantly higher than the norm for this time of year. At the Laguna Beach care center, almost 40 pups are in their care; last year, only six were. At Ft. MacArthur in San Pedro, one wildlife official said, a care center's load is 10 times higher than it was this time last year.
Some of the pups found on Southern California beaches were eight months old but still weighing what they did at birth. Some of them have hypoglycemia and other ailments related to malnutrition, but no disease has emerged as a possible explanation, wildlife officials said.
"They just haven't been eating," said Sarah Wilkin of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
It isn't an uncommon occurrence. Care centers typically take in more pups in the fall — in the months after they're born each year — and in the spring, as they're weaned from their mothers' care.
But it's unusual to have so many in the months in between.
Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist for the fisheries service, said one possibility is that mothers are forced to venture farther out to sea to find food, leaving their pups alone for longer stretches. Another explanation could be that even if the mothers are staying closer to their young, they aren't eating enough themselves for their milk to have sufficient nutrition for the pups to grow.
"Either they're not getting enough to make milk, or they're taking too long," Melin said. As a result, pups are showing up about 20 pounds lighter than they should be.
The mortality rate for pups born last summer could be close to 60% and could take a toll on the birth rate for this year. (But Melin noted that in the past, other particularly bad seasons were followed by productive ones.)
Only a small number of the young sea lions, she said, find their way to care centers.
In Laguna Beach, care workers brought in sea lions that had beached themselves. They were too late to save some of the pups; others were barely clinging to life.
The new arrivals start off in what could pass as a couple of emptied-out laundry rooms, where the pups snuggle on blankets or splay out their flippers to warm their emaciated bellies on the heated tile floors.
One pup was especially vocal, yapping in a back corner. "We've got one who likes to express himself," said Melissa Sciacca, the care center's director of development. "He's feeling left out."
As their condition improves, they move farther down the hall, where they can splash about in a pool.
"They were really skinny and dehydrated," Smith said of this bunch when they first arrived about a month ago. "These guys now, they've probably doubled in weight.... They're healthy. They're putting on weight. They look like real sea lions."
More than being healthy, though, it seems they've really come alive. "They have such personalities," she said, "more than people know."
Smith named this group after the characters of "NCIS," her favorite crime procedural: Tony, Ziva, Abby and Ducky, among them. She's noticed — coincidentally? — that they've buddied up in the same pairs as their namesakes on the show. They slip and slide on the concrete around the pool. At feeding time, one was crafty enough to sneak up and snag a few fish from the pail before the others.
In a few weeks, after they've bulked up in weight and their health has improved, they are moved to the final stage. At this point, caretakers watch how they behave at feeding time, how they fend for themselves and whether they're close to being ready to return to the wild.
The pups' stays can last for a few months, and the caretakers come to know them as they mature.
"The biggest thing," said Michele Hunter, director of animal care, "is seeing them released back into their natural habitat."
But the workers make a concerted effort to avoid conditioning the sea lions to being around humans. They keep their distance — feeding them from behind shields, for instance — even as they come to care about the pups as they get healthy and prepare to return to the wild.
They have to.
When the workers load the young sea lions into crates and take them to the water's edge, they do so with the hope the pups never have to come back.