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Natural Perspectives: Touring the Pacific Marine Mammal Center

The experts tell us that the ocean is now in a La Niña condition. So instead of being warm, like last winter during the El Niño, the ocean has cooled below normal. That’s the explanation that we’re getting for this summer of no summer. A La Niña condition bodes for a dry winter as well.

Wacky weather along the coast also means that more wildlife washes up injured onto our shores. The Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach has seen an increase in pelicans being brought in, most of them affected by domoic acid poisoning. Domoic acid, which is produced by diatoms, causes neurological damage in sea birds and marine mammals.


When the injured animal is a sea lion or seal, the lifeguards call the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. They are licensed to handle marine mammals, which are much larger and potentially more dangerous than the public often understands. Trained staff arrive in one of their trucks with nets and portable kennels that look like they’d hold a Great Dane or Saint Bernard. Or even bigger!

Vic and I visited the folks at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center last week to see how they care for the pinnipeds in their care. Education Director Kelli Lewis gave us a great tour of the impressive facility. Several of the patients were from Huntington Beach, mostly pups that had come in malnourished.


Vic and I were surprised to see four different species of marine mammals being cared for: California sea lions, harbor seals, Northern elephant seals and a very rare Guadalupe fur seal. The majority of animals were California sea lions. These pups huddled together in pens, jumping in and out of the water in unison. They seemed curious about us, approaching the gate, probably expecting us to be the volunteers with fish to feed them. Ah, but since there were no fish in our hands, they quickly splashed and skittered to the other side of the pen. They had a healthy fear of humans, which should serve them well in the wild.

The largest pups by far were the Northern elephant seal pups. With big, beseeching eyes, the pups were as endearing as kittens. Only these babies already had heads the size of that of a bull mastiff.

Northern elephant seals live from Baja California north to Alaska, with the vast majority living off the coast of California. They are the second largest seal in the world, second only to the southern elephant seal. The pups weigh 75 pounds at birth and are four feet long. By the time they’re weaned a month after birth, they will have grown to 250 pounds, an increase of 175 pounds in one month!

Full-grown males reach lengths of 13 feet and whopping weights of 4,500 pounds. When the males are grown, they will develop those long snouts that give them their name. Females, while smaller, aren’t exactly petite. They grow to 10 feet long and weigh 1,500 pounds.


These big animals are full of blubber, and that nearly did them in. Northern elephant seals were nearly hunted to extinction in the late 1800s after whalers ran out of whales to catch. Only 100 animals remained by 1910, all living on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California. But now that they are protected, the population has rebounded to about 150,000 animals. They breed along the central California coast and on the Channel Islands.

Little is known about the Guadalupe fur seal because they too were hunted nearly to extinction before anyone had a chance to study them. They may have lived as far north as Point Conception, but were extirpated from California by 1825. In fact, they were thought to be extinct until a few dozen were found living on Guadalupe Island.

Today, the population still breeds only on Guadalupe Island and numbers about 5,000. The Pacific Marine Mammal Center has treated several of these animals in recent years, which may be a sign that the population is beginning to expand back northward into its historic range.

At rescue centers, often individual animals will stand out. Kelli mentioned one male sea lion that particularly endeared himself to the staff. They named him Capt. Hook because he came in with over 70 fishhooks in his mouth. After removing the hooks, the caregivers nursed him back to health. He went from 400 pounds to more than 600 pounds by the time he was released. But he was back again in a matter of hours with three new fishhooks in his mouth.


This time, the staff kept him until he weighed a whopping 1,100 pounds. When it was time to release him, they needed a crane to lift his crate onto the truck. They took him far out to sea and released him near San Clemente Island. He immediately found a female sea lion and swam off in her company. He hasn’t been back to the center since.

Kelli told us that the average length of stay for a seal or sea lion is two to four months. That’s how long it takes for them to overcome malnutrition and put on enough weight to be released back to the wild. Ravenous pups eat 10% of their body weight each day. At the center, they are fed a diet of squid, corn syrup, Pedialyte and vitamins until they’re well enough to eat whole fish. The fish budget alone adds up to a cost of $100,000 a year.

The center has six paid staff and 80 volunteers. If you’d like to help out, the center is always looking for new volunteers. You can visit their website at or call them at (949) 494-3050.

And like all nonprofits, they’re looking for money as well as volunteers. On Sunday, they have a summer celebration family fundraiser at the Pacific Edge Hotel at 647 S. Coast Hwy. in Laguna Beach. This reservation-only event, which runs from 1 to 4 p.m., will feature live entertainment and a beach barbeque, plus beach volleyball, boogie boards and beach toys for the kids. Cost is $10 per person, with children 10 and younger free. Call or e-mail them to reserve tickets.

An adults-only fundraiser, Marine Mammal Martini Madness, will be held at Madison Square and Garden Café at 320 N. Coast Hwy. in Laguna Beach on Sept. 19 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Reservations must be made by Sept. 12. Cost is $20 per person.

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