ATTACK OF THE BLOB

An unusually warm patch of ocean is starving thousands of baby sea lions

Obsession
The Sea
Obsession
The Sea

For months now, emaciated sea lion pups have been mobbing the California coast, looking like furry sacks of bones littering the beach. As of late April, 2,700 of these freakishly skinny pups had been “stranded” ashore—nine times more than the average between 2004 and 2014, according to the California Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

California_sea_lion_pup_strandings_Total_2004-14_average_chartbuilder

What’s behind the die-off? The “warm blob,” it seems—the huge patch of freakishly balmy sea that bloomed off the California coast starting about a year ago.

To beat the heat, sardines, squid, and other creatures that sea lions typically eat have fled farther offshore or to deeper waters, Sharon Melin, a biologist with the NOAA Fisheries National Marine Mammal Laboratory, told the On the Line podcast.

WARM BLOB sst-anomalies-20140901_colorcorrected
The warm blob. (NOAA/NCDC)

That’s made new sea lion mothers swim farther and deeper to find the food they need to produce milk for nursing their pups. During these foraging trips, female sea lions leave their young in their rookery—an island breeding colony—for days at a time. By tracking one of these island populations starting in December 2014, Melin and her colleagues discovered that by March, half of the females had abandoned their pups, probably because their babies were dying. The mothers whose pups were surviving were regularly diving to unusual depths in pursuit of food.

The sea lion pups that have turned up on California’s beaches are those that decided they couldn’t wait for their mothers’ return and ditched the island rookery.

“They’re the ones that finally decide they just have to go to try to find food, but they’re too little and they’re not—they don’t have any foraging skills, and so they get out there in the ocean and they just can’t survive,” Melin said. “And so they end up washing ashore.”

At that point, humans take over the struggle to keep the famished pups alive. About half of the stranded pups taken into care by California’s network of Marine Mammal Centers survive and are released back into the wild; most of those little sea lions make it, the networks says. Here’s a heartbreaking survey of what they’re going through:

Sea lion pups are pictured in their enclosure after being rescued at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California March 17, 2015. Animal rescue centers in California are being inundated with stranded, starving sea lion pups, raising the possibility that the facilities could soon be overwhelmed, the federal agency coordinating the rescue said. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Recovering sea lion pups in their enclosure at Laguna Beach’s Pacific Marine Mammal Center. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)
Volunteers from the Marine Mammal Center approach a stranded fur seal on Ocean Beach for rescue in San Francisco, California.
Volunteers from the Marine Mammal Center approach a stranded fur seal on Ocean Beach for rescue in San Francisco. (EPA/Peter Dasilva)
This April 19, 2015 photo provided by the Mendocino County Sheriff shows Mendocino County Deputy Sergio Chora-Alvarado, left and Deputy Ze Manuel Limaa, pose for a photo with a stranded Sea Lion pup. The rescued the sea lion pup waddled about a quarter-mile from the ocean. Mendocino County sheriff's deputies patrolling Highway 1, south of Fort Bragg, spotted the animal moving slowly in dark, dense fog on Sunday. They discovered the animal was a sea lion pup weighing about 20 pounds with a tag attached to its front flipper (Mendocino County Sheriff via AP
Two Mendocino County, California, police officers pose for a photo with a stranded sea lion pup that had waddled about a quarter-mile from the ocean. (It was later rescued.) (Mendocino County Sheriff via AP)
epa04736357 (07/20) A volunteer moves incoming malnourished and dehydrated sea lion pups that have been stranded along the northern California coast to their new temporary pens at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausolito, California, USA, 21 April 2015. Wildlife services in California are being pushed to their limits this year. Since January 2015, every month has set a record in sea lion 'strandings', mostly sea lion pups, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. EPA/PETER DASILVA PLEASE REFER TO ADVISORY NOTICE (epa04736350) FOR FULL FEATURE TEXT
A volunteer moves incoming malnourished and dehydrated sea lion pups to temporary pens at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. (EPA/Peter Dasilva)
A sea lion pup swims in its enclosure after being rescued at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California March 17, 2015. Animal rescue centers in California are being inundated with stranded, starving sea lion pups, raising the possibility that the facilities could soon be overwhelmed, the federal agency coordinating the rescue said. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
A sea lion pup swims in its enclosure after being rescued at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California. (Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)
epa04736360 (10/20) A cart of deceased malnourished and dehydrated sea lions that had been stranded along the northern California coast, await their turn for necropsy at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausolito, California, USA, 07 April 2015. Wildlife services in California are being pushed to their limits this year. Since January 2015, every month has set a record in sea lion 'strandings', mostly sea lion pups, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. EPA/PETER DASILVA PLEASE REFER TO ADVISORY NOTICE (epa04736350) FOR FULL FEATURE TEXT
A cart piled with the bodies of sea lions that didn’t make it. The stranding centers are necropsying all deceased sea lions in order to learn more about what’s starving them. (EPA/Peter Dasilva)
epa04736365 (15/20) Some of the hundreds of malnourished and dehydrated sea lion pups that have been stranded along the northern California coast who are receiving much needed care at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausolito, California, USA, 07 April 2015. Wildlife services in California are being pushed to their limits this year. Since January 2015, every month has set a record in sea lion strandings, mostly sea lion pups, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. EPA/PETER DASILVA PLEASE REFER TO ADVISORY NOTICE (epa04736350) FOR FULL FEATURE TEXT
Sea lion pups stranded in California (EPA/Peter Dasilva)
epa04736364 (14/20) A close-up view of an elephant seal under treatment, swimming at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausolito, California, USA, 07 April 2015. Wildlife services in California are being pushed to their limits this year. Since January 2015, every month has set a record in sea lion strandings, mostly sea lion pups, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. EPA/PETER DASILVA PLEASE REFER TO ADVISORY NOTICE (epa04736350) FOR FULL FEATURE TEXT
A close-up view of an elephant seal under treatment, swimming at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. (EPA/Peter Dasilva)

epa04736369 (18/20) A general view of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausolito California, USA, 07 April 2015. Wildlife services in California are being pushed to their limits this year. Since January 2015, every month has set a record in sea lion strandings, mostly sea lion pups, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. EPA/PETER DASILVA PLEASE REFER TO ADVISORY NOTICE (epa04736350) FOR FULL FEATURE TEXT
The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. It has housed 882 rescued sea lions so far this year. (EPA/Peter Dasilva)
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