A sea lion bit a girl at Pismo Beach in a rare attack. Poisonous algae may be to blame

Megan Pagnini, who was bitten by a sea lion, plays in the surf of Pismo Beach with a sea lion at left.
(Via California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

A 13-year-old girl was posing for photos in the surf at Pismo Beach last week when a sea lion bit her leg in a rare attack that sent her to the hospital.

An officer with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife was patrolling Pismo Beach about 8:30 p.m. June 14 when he saw an emergency vehicle near the pier. When he arrived, he discovered Pismo Beach police had transported a young girl from the beach after she had been bitten by a sea lion.

Megan Pagnini, the teen who was attacked, told “Good Morning America” on Friday via ABC News: “I was at the water, I was just playing around, jumping — having fun.… I was taking silly pictures, when all of a sudden, it came out of nowhere and bit my leg.”

Officials said Pagnini is healing well but noted the unusual nature of the event.


“This is certainly an anomaly. It’s very, very rare that sea lions bite people,” said Todd Tognazzini, a patrol captain with the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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On the day of the attack, officers observed a sea lion near the pier acting strangely. They said the animal appeared to be confused and was waddling around in what seemed to be a stupor, biting at sticks on the ground as well as the metal base of a lifeguard tower.

The 160-pound adult female sea lion was quiet and extremely lethargic when she was captured about 10 p.m. and transferred to the care of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. Experts at the marine center confirmed she was suffering from domoic acid toxicosis, a toxin produced by algae.


“We can’t say with 100% certainty that the correct sea lion was captured because the sea lion was in the water [during the attack], but we did see an unusually behaving sea lion in the immediate area right after this event happened. So we’re fairly confident that the correct sea lion was captured,” Tognazzini said.

The Marine Mammal Center said the sea lion, which has had physical exams and is undergoing treatment, is stable.

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Jeff Boehm, the executive director of the Marine Mammal Center, said the attack is exceedingly rare and speaks to the unpredictable nature of an animal suffering from the toxic syndrome, which tends to appear in the summer months when there are algae blooms.

Fish feed on the algae and sea lions eat the fish, which can cause buildups of the toxin in larger animals.

Boehm explained that in a sea lion, or any mammal, including humans, the toxin mimics a neurotransmitter, latching onto neurons and causing them to fire at a rapid pace that can cause seizures and abnormal behavior. The toxin, if it goes untreated, can cause brain damage and death.

“This is a good reminder to all of us that when we’re out on the beach, when we see any wildlife — but certainly a sea lion, stay a safe distance. Don’t assume that you can predict the behavior of this animal,” Boehm said. “It’s a good rule of thumb in general and certainly when we’re seeing animals presenting with domoic acid toxicosis.”

Boehm stressed that the toxic syndrome, which the center sees in animals every year, can affect humans as well. He warned that people should be aware of health advisories regarding the consumption of shellfish, which can carry the toxin.


“We’re cognizant of the fact that what we see in sea lions is something of an alert for what we might see in people,” Boehm said, who added that health notices were recently issued in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. “It’s wise that people heed the warnings and advisories that are out.”

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