Orange County Commentary : Finny Friends : Laguna Center Is Training Sea Lions to Be Lifeguards

Times Staff Writer

Faye and Joyce, a pair of California sea lions who once frolicked at Marineland, are undergoing daily training in Laguna Beach to learn to rescue troubled swimmers.

What the pair has learned in the three months they've been in training is to stop biting trainer Jim Styers and make friends with him. That puts the program right on schedule.

"The first part of their training," said Styers, a former trainer at a Seattle aquarium, "was to get them used to being with humans, and now we're getting ready to take them to the ocean and teach them to come back."

Styers says he is hopeful that the novel experiment taking place at the Friends of the Sea Lions marine mammal center will result in another rescue tool for lifeguards, possibly for this summer.

By that time, he said, "we'll know if this whole program will work and if it does, the possibilities are unlimited." The abundant California sea lion population could be tapped for search and rescue, recovery of underwater objects or work in offshore oil drilling, he said.

"The Navy already uses sea lions for underwater searches," Styers noted. "I'm sure there're literally hundreds of applications we haven't even thought of yet."

Although he is confident about the program, he said, it will take time to get the public to accept sea lions for rescue work, "but more importantly we have to be accepted by the lifeguards."

And that, according to Capt. William Richardson of the Huntington Beach lifeguards, may be difficult.

"Even though someone came up with a great idea, I don't think it's going to work," said Richardson, whose lifeguards made 2,500 rescues last year. "Communication is important when you're trying to save someone from drowning and sea lions don't speak our language."

Bruce Baird, Laguna Beach's chief lifeguard, said that although he is fascinated with the concept, he fails to see merit in sending sea lions on rescues by themselves or with lifeguards.

But Karen Wyman, curator of the center, said the animals can be useful in riptides and undertows, and feels any program involving sea lions also provides other benefits.

"Few people realize how important sea lions are to the ocean environment," she said. "They mirror what others share from the ocean and that includes toxic pollution and certain diseases."

It was that idea, she said, that prompted the center, which rehabilitates sea lions and other hurt sea animals, to allow the experiment there at no charge. Styers, who owns a Costa Mesa print shop, is financing the entire project.

Styers said that so far in the training, "We've gotten them to start following us around, and when we send them off in the ocean, we know they'll come back. They're dependent on us for their food and they look on us as their keepers."

The goal is to train them to tow a floating device from shore to endangered swimmers or to dispatch them from a patrolling lifeguard boat.

Another option is to use the sea lion's 25 m.p.h. speed to tow a lifeguard to a troubled swimmer.

"We know what the sea lions can do," he said. "Now what we have to do is prove it."

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