2016 is forecast to be highly challenging for marine mammals along the coast of California. Ocean temperatures are warmer than normal due to conditions brought in from El Niño.
Unusually warm water has a negative impact on entire ecosystems from area plant life to the depletion of food supplies for native predators. The last two years have been exceptionally difficult for the California Sea Lion. Thousands are stranding on land, injured and emaciated. Organizations up and down the west coast have been working tirelessly to rescue and rehabilitate as many sea lions as possible, while trying to gather clues about their health status as a species.
The Channel Island Marine & Wildlife Institute (CIMWI) is the federally authorized responder to marine mammal strandings along Southern California’s 153-mile coast. In this role, they are committed to the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals, research, and education.
Due to a steep increase in sea lions in need, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium is working together with CIMWI to come to the aid of animals in trouble. Shedd’s assistant supervisor of sea lions and birds of prey Kurt Heizmann spent two weeks in California with CIMWI.
“I have worked with California sea lions for the entire seven years that I’ve been at Shedd. I’ve also helped before with rehabilitation of sea lions, harbor seals and elephant seals. So I was able to jump right in at CIMWI. The roughly 100 volunteers that staff CIMWI are split between rescue and rehabilitation responsibilities. I took part in both efforts, but I worked primarily in rehab.”
Heizmann published his experience in a blog post detailing daily tasks and his observations while with CIMWI. The rescue and rehabilitation teams spent long days preparing diets, medications, taking detailed notes, and charting the animals’ health.
The operation worked very much like a triage center. The healthiest animals were kept in large outdoor pens and were capable of eating and ambulating on their own. Some remained indoors, some ate whole fish, some had to have their food cut into smaller pieces. To best prepare the healthiest animals for an eventual release, they were fed in groups to maintain the competitiveness of a healthy wild sea lion. Animals in need of more medical care were fed individually to ensure everyone was receiving necessary medications.
A clue about this Unusual Mortality Event (UME) is the age of the animals being rescued; mostly pups, between seven and nine months of age. This is beyond the nursing age of a typical sea lion and they should have progressed to whole fish. Due to warmer waters, prey fish have traveled farther offshore to cooler areas. This impromptu migration has left the sea lions without a food supply.
On Kurt’s final day at CIMWI, his efforts came full circle as he got to experience the release of four successfully rehabilitated pups. Due to the severity of the strandings in California, not every story can be a happy one, which Kurt spoke about in his blog,
“Before heading to California, I had mentally prepared myself to see the worst, and I did. I experienced the care that goes into these sick and starving animals, and the grief that comes with seeing so many of them die. Because of this, I had to manage my expectations and know that success was not measured in the percentage of animals that were successfully rehabbed but in the number of animals we were able to give a second chance at life in the wild.”
It takes special, dedicated people do to the work of a marine mammal rescuer. It is physically exhausting work and often emotionally draining, but it is a role that is so desperately needed by animals experiencing natural disasters, severe weather, and other events. It’s nice to know that animals in distress have a place to go when they need a little help.