What Causes Sea Lion Stranding & How You Can Help

Sea Lion & Seal Encounters are Increasing

If you’ve been spending time at a SoCal beach in recent years, changes are you’ve come across a seal or sea lion. As surfers, beaches are our favorite playground, but for wild animals they’re an important habitat where animals like pinnipeds (the scientific name for seals and sea lions) come to socialize, breed, rest, and heal. Unfortunately, in recent years human created problems like the climate crisis and plastic pollution have been making life harder for pinnipeds, and beach lovers are more frequently finding themselves in the situation of trying to help a seal or seal lion taking refuge on the beach due to injury or illness. In this post, we’ll talk about the problems that are causing pinniped stranding and teach you what you can do if you see an animal who needs help!

Malnutrition

As seal and sea lion pups grow up, they reach a point where they stop nursing from their mothers and start needing to catch fish on their own. The learning curve for becoming expert hunters can be steep, and if a young sea lion isn’t catching enough fish after they’re weaned, they can quickly develop an energy deficit and become malnourished which can lead to hypoglycemia, seizures, unconsciousness, and even death!

california sea lion basks in the sun on a rocky beach Parasites, Injuries & Infections

For wild animals, dealing with parasites, injuries and infections is a part of life, and pinnipeds are no exception. Seals and sea lions are most susceptible to parasites early and late in life. Young sea lions can contract parasites in a number of ways, including through their mothers milk. As sea lions get older, their immune system naturally becomes weaker which can lead to a heavier parasite burden that creates numerous health issues that ultimately result in death.

If parasites weren’t enough, pinnipeds also frequently suffer injuries that can lead to infection. In addition to damage inflicted upon them by humans (we’ll get to that in a bit), they can also become injured when falling off rocks, encountering a sting ray’s barbs, and when getting bit by sharks and other sea lions! Any of these issues can cause a sea lion coming ashore to try and recover.

Sea lions frequently come ashore to rest after suffering an injury

a spotted seal floats with his face above the water in a rehabilitation pool Harmful Algal Blooms

Due to the warmer water temperatures that accompany the climate crisis, algal blooms that used to be seasonal have become an ever present force along the California coast. While algae can produce some amazing natural sights like the bioluminecent waves that made nighttime surf sessions a must in 2020, algal blooms are an indicator of danger for our natural habitat. Because algal blooms reduce the oxygen in the water they can lead to a die off of marine organisms. Pinniped mothers who leave their pups on the beach so they can hunt are forced to swim farther and farther to consume enough fish to be able to nurse their pups. This can result in pups being left on the beach for extended periods of time, and compromises their safety.

The effects of algal blooms unfortunately don’t stop there. Algae also produce a neurotoxin called domoic acid that finds its way into the food chain. California sea lions are extremely sensitive to domoic acid poisoning and often become disoriented, experience seizures, lapse into a coma, or die as a result of exposure. It can make their behavior more unpredictable and potentially dangerous for the humans they encounter, and is a good reason to respectfully keep your distance if you see one who’s been stranded.

Human Interaction

Sea lions are often a target for humans who are angry about dwindling fish populations.

Too frequently, human interaction is one of the greatest threats facing wildlife. In addition to causing climate change, humans are altering pinniped habitats with plastic, pollution, and overfishing. Pollution in the form of abandoned fishing nets, monofilaments, and plastic trash like 6 pack can holders can wrap themselves around sea lion flippers and necks, digging into their skin and causing deep, painful gashes. Pinnipeds are also a target for human anger. It’s not infrequent for marine mammal rescuers to come across stranded sea lions who are recovering from bullet wounds. Seals and sea lions are often blamed for eating more than their fair share of fish, when in reality dwindling fish numbers are caused by overfishing worldwide.

What You Can Do to Help!

Resist the urge to take a selfie! Getting too close to a stranded sea lion causes them stress, even when you're well intentioned

When learning about the challenges facing seals and sea lions, any ocean lover would feel compelled to help! Truly helping wild animals can require a great degree of knowledge and experience. Luckily, SoCal is home to marine mammal rescues like the Marine Mammal Care Center who help rehabilitate and release hundreds of stranded seals and sea lions every year! If you come across a seal or sea lion you believe might be in distress, here’s your plan of attack:
  • Keep Your Distance! While it may be tempting, even well intentioned human presence can stress out a wild animal. Staying at least 50 yards away is required by federal law, and harassing a marine mammal by getting too close (especially if it’s to take a selfie!) is punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine of $100,000.
  • Call your local Marine Mammal Rescue When you call, be prepared to give the location of the animal in as much detail as possible and describe their condition. It’s often helpful to note the nearest lifeguard stand as a landmark. If you’re in the LA area, here are a few you can put in your phone:
    • LA (Pacific Palisades to Long Beach/Catalina): Marine Animal Rescue - 800-39-WHALE
    • Malibu: California Wildlife Center - 310-458-WILD
    • Long Beach: Long Beach Animal Control - 562-570-73873.
  • Find the closest lifeguard and alert them Lifeguards can serve as a point of contact when marine mammal rescuers show up (which can often take a while since they may be coming from a significant distance away). You can also ask the lifeguard if they have any orange cones to put around the animal to help keep other beach goers away

Your Surf Lesson Helps Sea Lions!

In addition to helping protect animals at the beach, you can also help support the work of marine mammal rescues! Wavehuggers is thrilled to support the work of the Marine Mammal Care Center! For every surf lesson we teach, we donate the cost of 1lb of fish which helps MMCC care for the 300+ seal and sea lions they rescue and release each year! If you want to join us in becoming an MMCC donor, head over to their site today!