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Natural Perspectives: Touring the Pacific Marine Mammal Center

August 18, 2010|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • Guadalupe, a fur seal pup at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
Guadalupe, a fur seal pup at the Pacific Marine Mammal… (HB Independent )

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!

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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.

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