Ballona Photography | Sea Lion Pups in Trouble

Sea Lion Pups in Trouble

May 14, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Sea Lions are born in June & July, and Mom weans them at 10-11 months.  Pups being rescued now are from last year’s litters.  When weaning starts, pups often feel lost and out of sorts.  If the fish are plentiful, they’re fine after a few days.  If they have trouble figuring out how to take care of themselves or there are simply not enough fish, they often crawl up along the jetties or onto the beaches looking gaunt and exhibit distress. 

According to the Marine Mammal Care Center (MMCC), the past two years have seen astoundingly high numbers of pups needing rescue.  Prior to 2015, the average rescue was around 20-40 pups per month.  Last year, over 700 sea lions needed rescue.  As of mid-April this year, around 350 pups had been rescued.  So what happened? In 2015, the West Coast fisheries collapsed by 90%.  This continues to devastate the entire West Coast oceanic food chain including all fish eating seabirds and sea mammals.

This year, exacerbated by El Nino’s warmer oceans, many of the remaining fish have gone to deeper, cooler waters.  Fewer fish and further fish foraging have forced the Sea Lion moms to be gone from their pups much longer than usual.  This triggers the stressed pups to leave their home bases earlier in search for food and help, often when they’re still nursing. When the moms return, the starving pups are missing, often because caring bystanders call Marine Wildlife Rescue, who take them to MMCC.  If not for both the Marine Wildlife Rescue organization and the MMCC, many of the pups would parish.

How the Marine Animal Rescue & Marine Mammal Care Centers Help

I spotted a pup being rescued by the Marine Wildlife Rescue organization who catch and transport distressed or harmed marine wildlife and sea birds to the appropriate rescue organization.  I followed the pup to its destination: the MMCC. Collette, a long-time volunteer at MMCC explained what steps the pups go through from the time they’re delivered to MMCC until they’re released back to the wild.

  1. The Rescue.  When you encounter a stranded pinniped (i.e., Sea Lion or Seal) call Marine Wildlife Rescue.  They safely capture and transport the animal to the MMCC.

Distressed Sea Lion PupDistressed Sea Lion Pup

Marine Animal RescueMarine Animal Rescue, catching pup for transport.


  1. Evaluation.  Once the animal is taken to MMCC, the staff immediately evaluates each pup delivered to determine what it will take to get the pup healthy enough to be released back into the wild. They also shave a unique number in i’s fur to track it throughout its stay.

  1. Nutrition & Hydration. Initially the pups are tube feed to nourish and dehydrated them.  This continues until they show signs of being stable, hydrated, and active.

Dry pens are used to isolate pups who are ill from the others and are kept there until deemed not contagious and strong enough to progress through the normal rehab stables

  1. Rehabilitation.  Pups are organized by different stables (fenced, concrete areas each with pools, climbing structures, and shaded areas). In the first stable, the pups are too weak to catch fish, so staff feed them fresh cut up fish. In the subsequent stables, live fish are thrown into the pools. The staff carefully track which pups are thriving and which need more help. Each pup is moved to the next stable according to how well it’s eating, if it is the right weight for its age, how strong it are, how well it interacts with other pups, and if all injuries are healed.  Once they’re deemed able to fend for themselves, their release date back to the wild is planned.

  1. Release.  Releases back to the wild happen as soon as a pup is healthy and able to catch fish on their own. 

How you can help

MMCC. (310) 548-5677;

Marine Mammal or Seabird Emergencies in Southern California.  (800) 399-4253;

Both organizations do a tremendous service for our local wildlife and can use your help.  Here’s how to help either or both.

  • Donate Items (see “Wish List” on their websites)
  • Donate Time (be a volunteer). More volunteers are always needed, especially from late winter to late summer.
  • Donate Money (Each animal rescue has transport and equipment costs. Each rescued animal costs $50/day to rehab and the average stay is 2-4 months)


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