Inside Laguna's Pacific Marine Mammal Center
A volunteer's view inside Laguna's Pacific Marine Mammal Center during the worst year on record for stranded sea lions.
In many ways, 45-year-old Billy Long is your typical bachelor. He surfs a lot. He owns a small beachside restaurant, the Secret Spot in Huntington Beach, that’s frequented by fellow health-conscious surfers. He doesn’t stress.
Where Long’s typical bachelor status goes a little sideways is on Tuesdays, when you’ll find him cradling and tube-feeding infants. Smelly, furry and flippered infants, but infants just the same. Tuesday is the day Long volunteers at Laguna Beach’s Pacific Marine Mammal Center, and he’s been doing it since 2008. He rescues seals and sea lions stranded on beaches, feeds them, cleans their pens, administers medications – whatever it takes to get them back to the ocean.
“My parents were both biology teachers and they were into nature and wildlife,” Long says. “But they passed away in 2007, so I started volunteering as a tribute to their conservation efforts and love of the natural world.”
Unfortunately, Long’s dedication has never been more needed. This year has proved to be the most devastating on record for California’s seal and sea lion population. More than 3,300 sea lion strandings were reported in the first five months of 2015, according to a June National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Fisheries report.
To put that in perspective, that’s 10 times the average number for those months in 2004 through 2012, and almost three times the number in 2013, which was considered catastrophic. And it topped the worst year on record, 1998, when about 2,500 animals were reported stranded for the entire year.
“This year is definitely the worst we’ve seen, by far,” Long says. “Most of the animals come in severely underweight and dying of starvation. It’s really heartbreaking to see, even though I know we’re helping.”
The NOAA report does make it clear that the sea lion population as a whole is strong, standing at approximately 300,000. Before the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, the sea lion population was dangerously low, but the implementation of the act helped save the species. Despite that, however, this year’s historically high rate of strandings has NOAA Fisheries scientists concerned over what it means in regard to changes in offshore ecosystems and wildlife stocks.
Though scientists say there are many contributing factors, the main one is likely due to an El Niño year delivering warmer-than-normal waters to the California current, says NOAA, creating a significant impact on the food web.
The main sea lion rookeries are the Channel Islands, where every summer thousands of pups are born. The pups are completely dependent on their mothers for survival during their first six months of life. It isn’t until they’re 11 months to a year old that they’re weaned off their mothers and can hunt on their own.
But during El Niño events, the warmer waters drive the sea lions’ food source – sardines, squid, anchovies and other bait fish – further north and to deeper depths, seeking out colder, more nutrient-rich waters. That means the mothers must venture farther from the rookeries, leaving their pups alone for as long as eight days. Before long, the hungry and confused pups venture out, too.
“But they’re too young to hunt and can’t dive down very deep, so they begin to starve,” Long says. The problem only gets worse as the pups become underweight and malnourished, and before long, the pups are so weak, they wash up on shorelines. At least the lucky ones do, since that means a chance at rescue from one of the coast’s marine mammal rescue centers, like the PMMC. Many are in bad shape, says Long.
In fact, a sea lion pup at birth is usually about 16 pounds, and at three months, it’s around 38 pounds. But, according to NOAA, in January, the majority of rescued 7-month-old pups weighed 17 to 26 pounds.
They’re so weak and emaciated they have to be tube fed a “fish smoothie,” consisting of ground-up fish, salmon oil and water. Some are too weak for even that upon arrival and get an electrolyte mixture until they can handle the smoothies.
One pup, whom Long named Sage, was only a few days old when she was rescued. She was underweight and needed special care. “It was almost like having a human baby,” Long says. “I’d pick her up, feed her, play with her. She needed that.” But because Sage was rescued at such a young age, she was never able to build the skills needed to survive in the wild – after all, she had human parents. So today, Sage lives in a zoo in Colorado.
While caring for Sage might have been what volunteers envision when they sign on, Long says the reality is far from it.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come and go,” Long says. “A lot of people volunteer thinking that they’re just going to hang out with seals, but that’s not exactly what’s happening. You’ve got to pay your dues.” Pay them, and you get to tube feed sea lions, give them medication, watch them for signs of abnormalities or breathing problems, even play with them, if that’s what they need.
For new volunteers, however, day one is often washing dishes and cleaning pens. For some, there is no day two. By choice. Then there’s the smell, which can be overwhelming.
“The smell takes a long time to get used to,” Long says. “There are days when we have 120 animals and when you arrive at 6 in the morning, after the animals have been pooping and peeing all night, the smell hits you pretty hard.”
Long got through those first, tough days, and routinely pushes through the, shall we say, pungent days, because of the good days, the days when an animal Long brought in a few months before, emaciated and hanging onto life by the skin of a flipper, gets released back to the wild blue.
There are also some perks. “I get to drive a truck on the beach. That’s kind of cool,” he says with a laugh.
But he’s learned not to hold out too much hope for the animals he rescues, or to write an animal off too quickly. “I’ve brought in animals that I thought were just in need of a little assistance, and they pass. Then there have been animals that look horrible, that I didn’t expect to make it through the day, and they make it,” he says. “You really can never tell.”
In his seven years, he’s seen it all when it comes to sea lions in need. He’s seen shark attack victims, human attack victims, propeller wounds, missing flippers, sea lions wrapped in 10 pounds of fishing net, even one only a few days old – that made it.
Not every rescue is as easy as picking up an underweight, weak sea lion pup off the sand, either. He’s rescued an animal off the train tracks in San Clemente, on the boulders of Dana Point, from the jetties of Newport, and from the far end of the Thousand Steps Beach. “We couldn’t get the truck down, so we had to use the steps,” he says. “It took two hours. It wasn’t fun.”
Then there are the really wacky rescues. There was the sea lion they picked up from a woman’s bathtub. “It was a little underweight, but that wasn’t really an issue. The lady just decided she was going to take a sea lion home, I guess,” Long says.
One animal was rescued from the public bathrooms at Bolsa Chica State Beach (something many a beachgoer has probably wished for, but we digress …). “The animal was actually sitting on the toilet when the rescue crew found it,” Long says.
By far the hardest rescues, however, are the injured larger animals. Recently, Long rescued a subadult, in the 90-pound range, with a fish hook in its flipper and a nasty gash on its shoulder. It was under Newport Pier, scared, hungry and very defensive. In short, about the worst scenario possible for confronting and trapping a large wild animal with sharp teeth. “We had to corner him, and he was very feisty,” Long says. “That wasn’t fun either.”
Using large plywood boards with handles, and a large crate, Long and his team blocked off the ocean, then forced the animal into the crate. No one got bit, the animal survived, and he is on his way to recovery. That’s a victory.
It’s also part of what has kept Long returning for seven years. He says his fellow volunteers and co-workers are like family to him. A family he respects and loves to be with. They work together and celebrate the good times. And they help each other cope with the bad times. The defeats.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of defeats. Many of the animals are simply too injured or emaciated to survive. “Losing an animal can be pretty hard on you emotionally,” Long says. “Especially if it’s an animal you rescued, or if you named it.” He says that more than a few times, he’s showed up on Tuesday expecting to see a sea lion he had grown close to, only to discover that it died during the week. After years, you develop a thick skin, he says. “But it’s never thick enough.”
And perhaps that’s a good thing, because when everything goes right, and an animal you rescued, named, tube fed, and nursed back to health returns to the sea, a thin skin is exactly what you want.
Releases are usually done early in the morning on weekends at Laguna Beach’s Crescent Bay. The beach is steep and there are usually few people to scare the sea lion. PMMC staff and volunteers bring the sea lions down in crates, aim the doors toward the ocean and open them wide.
“And they race for the ocean,” says Long. “It’s so rewarding to see them get back to the ocean. But it’s also a little sad. You realize you may never see
Or maybe, he says, you hope you never see them again.
The Sea Lions’ First Friends
A lifeguard, a little girl and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
On a clear spring day in 1971, Newport Beach lifeguard Jim iStauffer was doing what he did every day: keeping humans safe. Then a young girl ran up to his tower with an unexpected problem. A seal was on the beach, and she thought it was sick. Could he come and check on it?
This was pre-Marine Mammal Protection Act, so Stauffer had no clear protocol of what to do. So he drove to what turned out to be a California harbor seal pup and loaded it into his Jeep. The pup immediately leaped out and scurried away. Stauffer figured he had merely disturbed the animal’s nap and went back to his tower.
But something about the pup nagged at Stauffer all day, and after his shift he returned to check on it. It seemed worse, and this time, it let Stauffer pick it up. He took it to the Dover Shores Pet Care Center, where a vet diagnosed it with lungworms, a deadly parasite.
But the animal hospital wasn’t able to take the seal. So Stauffer brought it home with him. Fortunately, Stauffer’s home had a pool, and, armed with medicine and advice from the vet, Stauffer nursed the pup back to health and returned it to the ocean. A happy ending, right?
Happy, yes. Ending, no. Word of Stauffer’s pinniped nursing skills spread, and he soon became the go-to guy for beached seals and sea lions. Stauffer recruited fellow lifeguard John Cunningham to help him. It was a savvy move since Cunningham was also a Laguna Beach High teacher and eventually created a class that required students to help with the care of the seals and sea lions. Next, Stauffer convinced Dr. Rose Ekeberg of Canyon Animal Hospital to come on as vet, and the trio became known as the Friends of the Sea Lion, which went on to become the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.
For a few years, Stauffer’s home served as the organization’s facility – the Department of Fish and Game issued the first permit of its kind in California to allow Stauffer to house seals and sea lions. But, in 1976, the city of Laguna offered the center an old barn in Laguna Canyon as a facility. Stauffer and Cunningham got to work, renovating the building themselves, and today that barn still serves as the PMMC, saving thousands of seals and sea lions a year, in addition to holding everything from Mommy and Me classes and kids camps to adult classes and volunteer opportunities. It even has a live camera stream on its website, so you can watch the seals and sea lions recuperate and play. Not a bad legacy for a little girl and a lifeguard.