Natural Perspectives: Survey turns into a sea lion rescue

Last Thursday morning, I led a crew of 12 newly hired corps members from the Orange County Conservation Corps on a wildlife survey of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. The corps members use checklists and photo identification sheets to identify a number of key invertebrates, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals. But first they have to find the wildlife, and that's usually where the fun comes in.

Vic joined us at noon, and man, did we ever have an exciting tale for him. We had just begun our early morning wildlife survey at the boardwalk when a photographer told us that he had seen an injured sea lion by the tide gates.

I told the corps members that we would end the wildlife survey and go search for the sea lion instead. Wildlife rescue always takes precedence over our regular educational program.

Because of their outstanding performance at this search-and-rescue task, I'm going to mention them all. Members of this crew were Kevin Brisbin, Cynthia Duque, Raquel Gomez, Raul Gutierrez, Michael Hernandez, Danny Ledesma, Jose Muñoz, Natalie Ramos, Manuel Sanchez, Ricardo Sanchez, Ana Torres and Edward Vasquez.

After calling the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, we hastened to the tide gates to locate the sea lion. I thought it would be easy to find, but it wasn't. We didn't see it in outer Bolsa Bay. It didn't appear to be along the muddy banks of inner Bolsa Bay, either.

We looked along the Wintersburg flood control channel, but the flap gates would have prevented a sea lion from entering. Not being able to locate the animal, I called the Bolsa Chica Conservancy to see if they had had any reports of an injured sea lion. They had received plenty of reports in the previous two days, but no one had given a specific location. They thought that it might be in the pocket marsh. My crew searched all over the pocket marsh, even under palm fronds, but didn't find the sea lion.

The only place we hadn't looked was the full tidal basin, so we headed over there. Some of the crew ran ahead, then came running back. They had located the sea lion.

The animal was beached on Rabbit Island below the overlook by the tide gates. It had a gaping wound on its right flank and didn't look alive. Normally, we would never venture off the trail, but this was a special circumstance. I asked the corps members to determine if the sea lion was still breathing. They headed down the slope to the edge of the water, with only a narrow channel separating them from the wounded animal.

The corps members yelled up to me that it was indeed breathing. Our next job was to direct the rescue crew to our exact location, which we did by cell phone.

The rescue truck pulled up along Pacific Coast Highway near the tide gates with three women volunteers. Two corps members met them to help carry the rescue equipment: a large portable kennel, a large net with long handle, a blanket to throw over the head of the sea lion and two perforated barriers to keep the injured animal from attacking the rescuers.

The rescuers forded the channel to get to the sea lion on Rabbit Island. One of the women approached the sea lion with the net while another held the barrier to herd the sea lion toward the net. But the sea lion, now alert and mobile, eluded capture time and again.

The corps members paced back and forth along the shoreline opposite Rabbit Island, itching to help catch the animal. But that wasn't our job. Sea lions, especially injured ones, can be dangerous. Capture must be left to trained personnel. We got to see just how dangerous they can be when the sea lion charged the women trying to catch it. I was amazed at how quick and agile this wounded animal really was. With mouth open and teeth bared, it lunged at the woman holding the barrier board, nearly biting her face. This sea lion was having nothing to do with being rescued.

The attempted capture took quite some time and attracted an audience. Some of the passersby criticized the rescue attempt, saying that my brawny crew of 12 should be helping the three women catch the wary and wily 200-pound sea lion. No way. We had no training in sea lion rescue and no safety equipment. If the volunteers from the marine mammal center had managed to catch the wounded animal, my crew would gladly have carried the caged animal back to their truck for them. But this sea lion refused to be caught.

During a quiet moment, I was able to get a good look at the extensive injuries on the sea lion. A piece of muscle and skin about the size of a large dinner plate was missing from the right flank. The left flank had another sizable chunk missing, and the skin around the wounds had numerous bite marks in semi-circles. Great white sharks have been spotted off our beaches, and it wouldn't surprise me if that was what had caused the damage.

We helped the would-be rescuers return their equipment to their truck and met Vic at lunchtime. One of the corps members told Vic that we had failed miserably in rescuing the sea lion. But that wasn't true. We did our job and did it well. We found the injured animal, directed trained rescuers to it, and were available to help carry it back to the truck if it had been captured. Our job had never been to actually catch the animal.

The next morning, I received a phone call from the good folks at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. They had returned in the evening and had been able to capture the animal at night. But a veterinarian determined that its wounds were too severe to save it. The sea lion was euthanized, and it died peacefully. At least we had been able to shorten the time that it suffered.

I'm really proud of this crew. I hope that they will be recognized for their exemplary performance in the field.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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