The Cambrian

Interaction with SLO’s elephant seals can be deadly. What officials do to prevent it

Elephant Seals and humans mix at San Simeon Beach

For many years, elephant seal “bachelors” have rested periodically at the Hearst San Simeon State Park, taking a break from the winter breeding-and-birthing melee at the rookery 4.3 miles to the north.
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For many years, elephant seal “bachelors” have rested periodically at the Hearst San Simeon State Park, taking a break from the winter breeding-and-birthing melee at the rookery 4.3 miles to the north.

The tiny elephant seal pup huddled on the Shamel Park beach in Cambria earlier this month was malnourished and weak, so concerned visitors notified trained volunteer rescuers from The Marine Mammal Center. They assessed the small creature’s condition and moved the pup to a special triage center in Morro Bay.

At about the same time 8 miles to the north near the pier at San Simeon Cove, Aliah Meza, assistant operations manager for the triage center, and volunteers Rebecca Hendricks and Victoria Roberts were at a beachside information table. They were explaining elephant seals and their need for safe buffer zones to curious shore walkers, including Cal Poly students Lisa Swartz and Kate Bilse.

The next day, volunteers from and interns with the Friends of the Elephant Seal nonprofit were at the cove beach and the Arroyo Laguna “windsurfer beach” location doing the same thing, an assignment they’d fulfilled every Sunday throughout the birthing season. They were also manning the elephant seal rookery bluff, which they do year-round.

It’s all part of a multi-pronged approach to protecting elephant seals and other marine mammals along Central Coast shores and helping the ones that are sick, abandoned, injured or otherwise unable to fend for themselves.

The Marine Mammal Center and the Friends group are just two of the agencies and groups of volunteers dedicated all or in part to protecting the marine critters and telling people about the animals and the safest way to view them and enjoy having them in the neighborhood, so to speak.

The big concerns, center spokesman Giancarlo Rulli said, are: Having received so many reports so far this season of “negative human interaction with northern elephant seal pups;” educating the many spring-break visitors about the pups and other marine mammals those tourists are apt to see on the shores; and the risk of people illegally picking up or interacting with harbor-seal pups, once that pupping season begins in a few weeks.

He said that in 2018, due to negative human interaction, “86 seals, sea lions and sea otters were rescued” from San Luis Obispo County to Mendocino County.

It’s not known how many cases went unreported.

The annual return of the elephant seals is underway at Piedras Blancas, California, starting off with pup season and then breeding at the beach on Highway 1 near San Simeon.

Rescue and education season

Officials are bracing for what’s expected to be a busy 2019 rescue-and-education season, as thousands of elephant seal pups from the Piedras Blancas rookery head off on their own for the first time and harbor seal moms start giving birth.

Since Henrietta’s rescue March 9, the teams have taken to the Sausalito hospital (from Marin County to Santa Barbara) another 13 Northern elephant seals, four harbor seals and three sea lions as of Monday, March 18. Another 21 animals were taken in earlier in the year, and another 23 have been treated and re-released or reunited with their mothers.

The website shows that 27 of the animals were brought into the Sausalito hospital during the first three weeks of March, and Rulli said Monday that “we’ve admitted six new patients today and there are an additional three e-seals at the Moss Landing triage center.”

Those animals include seven elephant seals, one sea lion and one Guadalupe fur seal.

So, this is, indeed, a peak season, which coincides with the annual spring break that brings thousands of vacationers to San Luis Obispo County. Most of them will go to a shoreline area.

“It’s a cool time to be at the beach,” said Diana Kramer, head operations manager of Morro Bay triage facility, “but the likelihood is high that anyone could encounter a resting elephant seal,” and people need to know how to do that safely.

Baby elephant seal’s rescue

Kramer said a team of trained rescue responders assessed the pup’s condition after someone concerned about the tiny creature called The Marine Mammal Center’s hotline.

After checking various factors (condition of the body, skin and eyes, weight for its age, behavior), team members determined the pup probably wasn’t injured, but was seriously malnourished and dehydrated, based on its lethargic behavior, prominent ribs and hip bones, scrawny body and dry, crusty eyes.

So, out came the “herding boards” and the big carrier, Kramer said, and the team took the pup to the Morro Bay center for “basic triage care, food and fluids and any medication the pup might need.”

The pup was nicknamed Henrietta, and the name stuck, even though veterinary scientists in Sausalito have since determined that it’s a male.

He is a “weaner” seal, having recently been weaned by his mother, shortly before she swam away and out of her offspring’s life forever.

An elephant seal mom nurses her pup for about four weeks, even though she hasn’t eaten at all while she’s at the rookery. She then leaves to search for food and start her next migration/pregnancy/birthing cycle.

That leaves her young one to survive on its own as it learns to swim, find food and defend itself.

Veterinarians at the Sausalito facility were consulted about the pup’s behavior and condition, and they issued written orders for Henrietta’s care. On March 11, the pup was taken by air-conditioned van to the Monterey Bay triage center, a stopping point in the long journey to the main hospital in Sausalito, where it was taken later in the week.

Rulli said March 13 that at a weight of about 70.5 pounds, Henrietta was “a really small pup” and still wearing its black birth coat. When a pup is about a month old and weaned, the coat changes to a silvery color.

He said the pup was “suffering from malnutrition and dehydration.”

Center veterinarians noted the animal’s lungs “sounded clear” and the vets “didn’t find any external trauma.” The team took blood samples and began “administering both bagged fluids to boost hydration and tube feed Henrietta a mixture of sustainably caught ground herring and electrolytes three times a day to help increase his weight.”

Rulli said Monday that, according to the staff vet, “Henrietta’s condition is improving every day. He’s increasingly showing more energy and slowly putting on weight. The male pup is still being tube fed” just as often, “and has moved out of his intensive-quarantine pen to a larger rehabilitation-pool pen with other elephant seal pups.”

However, “veterinarians remain cautiously optimistic about Henrietta, as he should be more than three times his current weight at this stage of his life,” Rulli said. “The next step for the male pup is to move through the ‘fish school’ process, where trained volunteers work carefully with young elephant seals to help foster interest in swallowing and tracking whole fish” without getting the pup too accustomed to being around and fed by humans.

The pup’s condition, and that of other seal patients in Sausalito, “gives us a window in what’s going on offshore of Cambria” and the effects of ocean conservation, Kramer said. “It ties into human health issues as well,” because we’re all dependent on the sea.

Harbor seals

Kramer said the fragile harbor seal pups are “so cute, small and fluffy, and when they vocalize, they sound like they’re saying the word ‘mom.’”

Beguiling as the pups are, people should give them plenty of space, she said. When moms and their pups are onshore, a mom might head for the water and leave the pup onshore for a while, planning to reunite soon. If people (or dogs) get too close, stay too long or illegally pick up the pup, the mom might be too scared to come back for her little one, and it becomes a serious “maternal separation event.”

“They’re so fragile and require such specialized care… only a permitted marine-mammal hospital can provide appropriate care,” Kramer said, and only a properly trained rescuer should interact with the tiny pups … or any marine mammal on the shore.

Some tips for viewing marine life safely

Maintain a safe distance from wildlife, whether you’re in the water or on the beach. A buffer zone of about 100 feet is good, but the rule of thumb is if the animal reacts to you, you’re too close.

However, even if the creature doesn’t react, your presence can still be disturbing it. Some of the likeliest species to be on the shore are federally protected species.

Yes, young pups are charming, engaging and very photogenic. Use your zoom lens, not your feet. No SEAL-fies, please!

Keep dogs far away from any marine mammal. The species can communicate diseases to each other.

If you see a seal, sea lion, otter or other marine mammal in distress, call the hotline at 415-289-SEAL (7325).

Additional information on safe viewing practices is available at www.marinemammalcenter.org.

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