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4 rescued sea lions released back to the ocean in Laguna Beach

By Erika I. Ritchie, ocregister.com

9 days ago   Article ID# 4089274
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Pacific Marine Mammal Center

SANTA ANA, CALIFORNIA (ocregister.com) - Kendra Leak leaned over Jyn’s kennel for one final close-up look at the now fat and healthy sea lion pup. It was a huge difference from the emaciated pup she first saw after Jyn was found stranded in Newport Beach in January.

Seconds later, on Sunday morning, Leak unlocked the door to the kennel and held her breath, waiting to see if Jyn would rush out to the surf or hesitate.

Animal care staff from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center opened cage doors for three other sea lion pups – Kinsey, Syrah and Whiskers – giving them a straight shot to the surf at Aliso Beach just feet away.

More than 100 people fell silent in anticipation, but the sea lions didn’t dart out. Instead, they huddled together in front of Whiskers’ kennel. Whiskers was rehabilitated at PMMC after becoming entangled in fishing gear and rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard boat outside Newport Harbor on Jan. 14.

To the onlookers, it may have seemed like they were kissing – but really they were smelling each other’s breath.

“It’s kind of what dogs do when they greet each other, but sea lions are just more polite,” said Wendy Leeds, animal care coordinator at the Laguna Beach-based marine mammal rescue center.

With some nudging from animal care staff, the pups got a good whiff of ocean and hurried toward the surf, diving through the waves together. A huge round of applause and cheers came from the group assembled in the morning fog.

“It was a really good release,” said John Cunningham, a former Laguna Beach High School teacher and former seasonal Laguna Beach lifeguard who, in 1971, co-founded the rescue center in an old red barn on Laguna Canyon Road. “It’s a reward for all the hard work done by the center staff and volunteers to see them go out in good condition.”

The release of the four sea lions is the center’s largest so far this year. It has rescued 18 sea lions since January – a figure that center officials call more normal than the mass strandings of recent years.

Kinsey was the first sea lion rescued this year. She was found in San Clemente on New Year’s Day. Then came Syrah, rescued Jan. 2 in Newport Beach.

The pups – all born on the Channel Islands in June and July – were well underweight at an average of 28 pounds, half of normal. After being tube fed, re-hydrated and taught to compete for fish, they were released at more than 80 pounds each.

In 2016, PMMC rescued more than 301 sea lions; at this time last year, it had rescued 177 sea lions. It also had rescued one harbor seal and five elephant seals. Since 2013, the center has rescued 1,433 sea lions, 97 elephant seals, 216 harbor seals and 10 fur seals.

A lack of food sources available to lactating mothers close to sea lion breeding grounds on the Channel Islands led to the mass strandings starting in 2013, according to federal officials.

Pups waited for their mothers to return after long hunting trips looking for squid and mackerel to create nutrient-rich milk for their pups. Mothers had to swim farther from the Channel Islands to find food, however. During that time, experts say, pups either starved on the islands or followed older sea lions off the islands to beaches along the Southern California coast where the weak, sick and dehydrated animals beached themselves.

For the first time in four years, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last fall projected improvements on the Channel Islands rookeries.

Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist for NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center Marine Mammal Laboratory, has studied sea lions at the rookeries for more than three decades. A visit last summer showed that the pups born in June and July were doing better than in recent years. Their weights were up. But Melin also found that many fewer pups were born in 2016 than in 2015.

With healthier pups, staff at rescue centers such as PMMC, Sea World and Marine Mammal Care Center Los Angeles in San Pedro are optimistic that strandings will decline this year. Sea lions typically strand from December to early June, peaking in March and April.

“The numbers are more normal this year,” said Keith Matassa, executive director at PMMC. “But Thursday we rescued another sea lion pup and an elephant seal. We’ll see what happens in the next two months. Right now, we’re breathing a sigh of relief but it’s not over yet.”

For Leak, 32, Sunday’s experience was extra special. She grew up and lives in Newport Beach and as a child spent many hours at Davey’s Locker watching sea lions.

She and her boyfriend, Paul Grogan, sponsored Jyn with $500 after she was rescued in Newport Beach on Jan. 21. That meant they got regular updates on her progress. They also took trips to the center in Laguna Canyon to watch her get healthier.

“I think the way they make it an individual connection with the animal makes you care and drives stewardship of our environment,” said Leak. “It’s our responsibility to make sure these animals have a safe place to live.

“It was a perfect moment as they all set out together,” she added.

Copyright 2017 ocregister.com   (Copyright Terms)
Updated 9 days ago   Article ID# 4089274

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