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Pacific Pup Protection
Jon Edelbrock | Community Services and Lifeguard Lieutenant

 

Sea Lion Pup awaiting rescue. Photo Del Mar Lifeguard Service

 

It’s well-known that the Del Mar beach is an immensely popular destination for enjoying the surf and sun. Locals and visitors flock to our beach daily in pursuit of leisure and relaxation. Another visitor, however, has been making its way to our shores this year in greater numbers than in the recent past and their presence has caused quite a stir – both locally and beyond. That well-documented phenomena is the large number California Sea Lion pups stranding themselves on local beaches.

Local Lifeguards and other agencies involved with stranded wildlife are familiar with sick, injured, or resting animals on local shores. On average, our department captures and transfers 5 to 15 stranded Sea Lions on our beach annually. This year, however, there has been a significant increase in the stranding and since January 1 we have caught over 40 of the animals that have appeared sick, hungry, and lethargic. The numbers beyond our city and into Southern California represent an even greater increase with over 300 and 1100 caught in both San Diego County and Southern California, respectively, between January 1 and March 31. These numbers represent up to ten times the norm for the time period.

The increase has caught the attention of many - from the occasional beach visitor to the foremost authority on ocean wildlife, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA recently declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) as a result of the significant increase in stranding and potential die-off of the population. By making the declaration, immediate study of the problem and response is triggered. A NOAA assembled panel of experts is working toward greater understanding of the increase and already have developed multiple working hypotheses. The leading ideas are a lack of food causing starvation and dehydration. Other less plausible hypotheses still on the table include ocean pollutants, disease, and radiation from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power accident.

Our Lifeguard team, like other agencies, has made many significant and unusual efforts to capture the pups. The most challenging of calls have been navigating the rip-rap up at Sandy Lane as well as scaling up over 40 feet on our southern bluffs to extricate the sick animals. Interesting captures have included removal of the animals from the yards of multiple residences and even one who found comfort on a beachfront patio chaise lounge.

The most significant challenge in handling the stranded animals has been the communications with often highly emotional and concerned patrons. Opinion on what to do with the animals varies from leaving them there to be part of the food chain to those who call 911 and expect a helicopter response. While these challenges are understandable, our Lifeguard staff is highly trained in animal capture and have many years of watching, capturing, and understanding, the behavior of our local animal friends. We have six employees on staff with Advanced Technical Animal Rescue certification and multiple employees who have personally handled hundreds of animals without incident.

If you are to come into contact with a potentially stranded animal, Lifeguards and NOAA request you contact either our agency or the Sea World Animal Rescue team. Always just watch quietly from a distance, limit your viewing time, and never approach, follow, feed, pursue, or surround, the animals.

 

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