Ailing sea lion rescued in Solana Beach

By Tim Pickwell

It took two Solana Beach lifeguards and three members of SeaWorld’s animal care team to corral an aging, sick sea lion at Tide Park in Solana Beach, on Saturday afternoon, Dec. 10.

The male sea lion, estimated to be 17 to 20 years old, weighed 392 pounds.

“He stood up — about 6 feet tall,” said Solana Beach Lifeguard Bill Feeney, who assisted in the rescue. “He looked me right in the eye. It was pretty intimidating.”

The lifeguards and SeaWorld handlers used soft hoop and cargo nets to herd the unwilling sea lion into a cage for transport to the Mission Bay aquatic park. The first two attempts at driving him into the cage were unsuccessful, before the sea lion finally backed in on his own accord.

“We often get lost sea lion pups that wash ashore in the summer in Solana Beach,” said Feeney. “But, something on this scale is quite unusual. The pups can be put into an ordinary pet transport cage. This guy took quite an effort.” Feeney was helped by fellow lifeguard Joe Cavaiola.

The sea lion was first reported to Solana Beach lifeguards on Friday evening, Dec. 9, 2011, just before sunset. The lifeguard station was shutting down when a call came in that a sick sea lion was at Del Mar Shores. “We called the SeaWorld Marine Rescue Unit,” said Feeney. “But, it was too close to dark, and they couldn’t come out. They told us to keep an eye out for it.”

The lifeguards started getting calls from surfers and beach walkers at 8 a.m., Saturday morning reporting on the location of the sea lion. At 11:30 a.m., with the tide receding, Feeney was able to get a vehicle up the beach to isolated Tide Park and observe the animal. SeaWorld was again called, and they were able to drive a truck onto the beach about an hour later. SeaWorld averages between 150-200 marine mammal rescues per year, according to SeaWorld communications Director David Koontz.

Koontz reported that the Tide Park sea lion was dehydrated and hypoglycemic. “He was started on fluids upon arrival, and began eating fish the next day — which is a positive sign.”

The results of a later blood test did not show any other health issues, according to Koontz. “The sea lion continues to recover well,“ he said this week. “The vets are pleased so far. If his rehab continues, we may be able to return him to the ocean before the end of the year.” The animals are taken several miles out to sea for release.

A full-grown, adult male California sea lion, Zalophus californianus, can weigh over 700 pounds and reach 8 feet in length. This fellow measured in at seven-and-half-feet, according to Koontz. Zalophus californianus ranges from the Alaskan panhandle to the Gulf of California and the Pacific Coast of Mexico. The population hit a low-point in the 1970s, but has recovered to number an estimated 238,000 animals. The growth rate for the Sea Lion population has flattened, leading biologists to believe the species is within “optimum sustainable population limits” (i.e., the carrying capacity of the environment). The sea lions eat squid, all types of schooling fish, and salmon. They have been spotted 10 miles off the coast, and over 100 miles up-river feeding on salmon in Washington and Oregon. A sea lion was once recorded diving to a depth of 1,875 feet.

Because it is highly intelligent and can be trained to handle difficult tasks, Zalophus californianus is the species most commonly seen in circus or marine animal acts, and is used by the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program to identify underwater mines.

Photo Caption: An ill California Sea Lion beached itself at Tide Park in Solana Beach on Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011. The large bony crest on top of his skull shows that he is a full-grown, mature male. He was rescued by SeaWorld animal trainers and Solana Beach Lifeguards and taken to the aquatic park. He was dehydrated and hypoglycemic, but has responded well to treatment (fluids and fish). A SeaWorld spokesman said that the sea lion is recovering rapidly, and may be released by the end of this month.

PHOTO: Jillian Jaffee (Age 11, Skyline Elementary)