How to identify a sea lion sick with domoic acid toxicity, which causes brain damage
A 13-year-old Paso Robles girl was standing in the surf at Pismo Beach when, out of nowhere, a sea lion swam up and bit her.
“She had no idea,” said Capt. Todd Tognazzini of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “A friend was taking photos of her standing in the surf zone. It was completely a surprise.”
The attack happened Friday evening, just north of the Pismo Beach Pier, Tognazzini said. The sea lion, an adult female, bit the girl on the thigh.
The girl was taken to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo for treatment.
Tognazzini said Fish and Wildlife scientists were consulted to make sure she got the right antibiotics to treat the bite.
“It’s a pretty nasty injury,” Tognazzini said. “She looks like she’s healing quickly.”
What happened to the sea lion?
A California Fish and Wildlife officer arrived at about 8:30 p.m. and saw a California sea lion “behaving unusually” in the surf, Tognazzini said.
The officer followed the sea lion as it swam south of the pier and then came up onto the beach and started biting various objects, like sticks.
“Ultimately it ended up at the base of the lifeguard tower, biting the tower, which is metal,” Tognazzini said. “We believe it was the same sea lion (that bit the girl).”
The sea lion, an adult female, was exhibiting signs of domoic acid poisoning, Tognazzini said.
The Marine Mammal Center picked up the sea lion to begin treatment. The animal stayed overnight at the group’s Morro Bay triage hospital on Friday and was transferred to its Sausalito hospital on Saturday, according to The Marine Mammal Center.
What is domoic acid poisoning?
Domoic acid poisoning happens when marine animals like sea lions ingest too many small fish that have eaten toxic algae. Symptoms include disorientation, brain damage, seizures and death.
Shawn Johnson, vice president of veterinary medicine and science at The Marine Mammal Center, said officials can’t be completely certain that the sea lion they picked up on Friday was the same one that bit the girl. “Based on everyone’s reports,” he said, “we feel it’s most likely this one sea lion.”
“She’s exhibiting the typical clinical signs of the disease,” Johnson said of the sea lion, adding that she likely “had a large dose of toxin from fish.”
In the last 10 days, The Marine Mammal Center has rescued about two dozen sea lions in San Luis Obispo County, Johnson said. All of them appear to have been affected by domoic acid.
Most of the sea lions the center has rescued are from the Pismo Beach and Oceano Dunes area, Johnson said. Most of them are females and more than half are pregnant.
Most California sea lions travel to the Channel Islands to give birth from about June 15 to July 1, Johnson said.
“This is bad timing for this, right when all these females are getting ready to have these pups,” Johnson said.
In addition to the increase in sea lions with domoic acid poisoning, the center is also seeing an uptick in younger, malnourished sea lions.
Johnson added that domoic acid poisoning events are more common in the summer.
“We had an event in the last 10 days and it’s starting to slow down,” Johnson said. “We’re fully being prepared for another one of these events to happen during the summer.”
What to do if you see a sea lion on the beach
The girl who was attacked “just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Tognazzini said. “This type of thing probably couldn’t have been avoided because she never saw it, but in most cases you can see the animal.”
Tognazzini said people shouldn’t be afraid of getting in the water, but “be aware of your surroundings and be cautious and be aware that wildlife can come out of nowhere.”
Both Tognazzini and Johnson emphasized that it is rare for sea lions to bite humans.
“This is the first incident I can recall of anyone being bitten that wasn’t provoking the animal,” Tognazzini said. Johnson said there were a few swimmers in the San Francisco area who were bitten in the last year or so, but “this is a very rare event.”
Johnson urged anyone who sees a sea lion on the beach to keep their distance and call The Marine Mammal Center at 415-289-7325.