Celebrating the Newly-Rebuilt Marine Mammal Enclosures

by Heather Henderson, Stranding Coordinator

Ribbon Cutting, Jennifer Brent (left), Shannen Doherty and “Zuma Jay” Wagner, Photo by Harry Vamos

On January 11, 2018 honored guests, staff, volunteers, and our first California sea lion pup patient of the season all gathered to officially unveil the new and improved marine mammal rehabilitation enclosures.

We were fortunate to be joined by longtime CWC supporters, actress Shannen Doherty and Malibu City Councilmember Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner. The entire project was made possible with funds from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. Mike Remski, Marine Mammal Program Manager, shared CWC’s rehabilitation and response history and details about why this rebuild had become a necessity.

2018’s first sea lion patient, Photo by Heather Henderson

Highlights of the new enclosures include additional drainage with sloping floors, a loading dock that provides access to the vehicles, and enhanced slip-proof entrance stairs. Finally, a redesign of the filtration system will enhance water quality during the busy season. The structure is built above ground, creating the perfect space for a seascape mural, donated and painted by former volunteer and friend of CWC, Ann Jin Chiu.

Throughout the presentation, the first sea lion pup of the season propped herself in the center enclosure, eyes closed and head held high. This body posture is generally displayed by sea lion patients as their health improves, suggesting that they are responding to care, and it is always wonderful to observe. While she was aware of the activity occurring in front of the enclosure, watching her behave in a natural manner is also a delightful sight, since our goal is to nurture these wild instincts. It was a great reminder of why the enclosure is so sorely needed.

Looking Forward to the 2018 Marine Mammal Stranding Season – What can we expect?

By Heather Henderson, Marine Stranding Coordinator

Underweight northern elephant seal pup – tossing sand on the back is a normal behavior

California Wildlife Center responds to reports of stranded marine mammals 365 days a year.  Due to birthing cycles and species-specific behaviors, there is a certain predictability to the stranding pattern. We use this pattern to approximate supply and personnel needs.   Pinnipeds, such as seals and sea lions, are the primary patients we rescue and care throughout the year.   For our region, the busiest stranding months during a “normal” year are March through May, with a quick buildup and drop off at the beginning and end.  However, over the past half-decade, we have not experienced many normal years.

We look at many factors attempting to predict workload and intensity of stranding patterns as we prepare for the upcoming rehabilitation season.  We look at information from the rookeries where the animals are born and weather predictions to gain a glimpse into the future.

Underweight California sea lion pup – bones of spinal column visible

Population biologists head out to the breeding islands each fall to assess the health of the current season’s cohort.  They document an approximate number of births along with current body weight of pups and their overall condition.  Preliminary findings for California sea lion pups are reassuring, with weights reported to be approaching the healthy range and total number of births to be average.   Northern elephant seal pups have not been born yet.  They are born primarily in January and February, so we will receive their status update later.

Weather patterns have a profound effect on our pinniped populations and their likelihood of stranding.  Storms can flush young animals from the beach before they are ready to head out in to the ocean.  Warmer sea surface temperatures can shift food stocks (fish) farther off shore or into deeper waters. This presents challenges for young animals who are not able to dive as deep.  Foraging mothers need to travel further off shore to feed, leaving their pups for longer periods of time between nursing sessions.  Heavy rains increase coastal pollution through runoff, and can contribute to toxic algal blooms, leading to less safe ocean environment for all marine life, as well as humans.

Early weaned California sea lion pups will start to show up on our Malibu beaches in December.   Northern elephant pups will start to haul out on our beaches in March.  Please give them space to rest and call our rescue hotline (310) 458.9453   Thanks to the amazing team of marine mammal volunteers, and all who generously donate to California Wildlife Center, we enter the 2018 season ready to respond!

The Marine Mammal Department Plans for Big Changes

By Michael Remski, Marine Mammal Program Manager

Photo by Jennifer Brent
The step between pens makes moving animals difficult for staff and hard on the animals.

Looking ahead to our “off season,” (when there are few rescue calls and no animals are held on site) there are some exciting renovations planned for our marine mammal enclosure.  Since 2013, the existing structure has performed very well over its lifespan, allowing for five successful seasons of marine mammal rehabilitation.  183 patients (90 sea lions and 93 elephant seals) have called this enclosure their home for at least a short period of time.  And although that may not seem like very many animals, consider the fact that that equates to over nine tons of animals residing on a structure originally built to stand for only a single season.

We have asked a lot of our platform style enclosure, and although it has served us well, it is time to retire it, and start from scratch. Construction will take place as soon as our last patient leaves our doors for their ocean home sometime in late July of this year.

Although we will not be able to increase our overall footprint, we will be able to make some major improvements over the existing layout.  First and foremost, an enclosed hallway will be incorporated.  This will allow a safer way to enter and exit each pen, as well as provide a corridor for moving animals between pens or to and from the transport vehicles. A loading dock will be incorporated into the enclosure to facilitate moving animals on and off trucks during intakes and releases. Large, heavy deliveries can also make use of this loading dock.  All three pens within the enclosure will be on one level and have easy transition areas from one to the other, rather than having small barriers in between that get in the way of rolling carts or low profile animals (specifically elephant seals). Lastly, the entire enclosure will be on a steeper grade to accommodate better drainage, the floor topcoat will be a smooth PVC material, and the number of drains will be increased.  We are in the process of securing funding to off-set the costs of this necessary project.

As I look ahead, I cannot even attempt to predict what next year will bring to the shores of Malibu.  But whatever 2018 should bring our way, CWC will be ready. With our improved enclosure, amazing volunteers, and dedicated staff, I have no doubt it will be another great and successful year.

The Malibu Community – Key in the Rescue of Marine Mammals

Sea Lion 17-1 in care

Sea Lion 17-1 is gaining weight in care and doing well.
Photo by Alyssa Schlange

By Heather Henderson, Stranding Coordinator

During this past fall and winter, between rescues calls for marine mammals, California Wildlife Center also worked to improve enclosure space.  Walls were built around one entire pen, to keep the pups warm during the cold spring evenings, when temperatures drop below freezing.  All the planning was well worth it, as just days after the upgrades were completed, the phone rang with reports of a California Sea Lion in need of assistance.  CWC opened the doors to marine mammal rehabilitation earlier than ever before – January 1st.

Sea Lion 17-12

Sea Lion 17-12 was hiding behind some fencing.
Photo courtesy of Kathleen Fanning Lojkovic

There are many challenges associated with performing rescues along the beautiful Malibu coastline.  The first patient of the year was wedged far into a cave in the rocky cliffs.  This location, compounded by the shorter winter days, could have proved unsuccessful had it not been for the caring people in Malibu.

Most rescues are prompted by reports from the public, after sighting an animal in need of supportive or veterinary care.  The simple act of calling our hotline [310 458 9453 (WILD)] is an essential part of the rehabilitation!  Residents and visitors to the Malibu area often go further.  They send photos, provide GPS pins and even remain on site (at a safe distance of 50+ feet) until our rescue team arrives.  They guide us to the animal and let other concerned individuals know that the Marine Mammal Rescue Team is on the way.  These extra steps can be essential to the rescue process, as distressed California Sea Lions will strive to find shelter and can easily blend in with the rocky coastline.  Even when possible to locate without additional information, the photos and enhanced stranding details allow our team to better assess and prepare while en route to the site.  Once there, a more efficient rescue can mean removal from a potentially stressful environment and the ability to provide care sooner.

17-1 in cave

Sea Lion 17-1 was hiding in a cave. CWC staff might never have found it had it not been for help from the community.
Photo by Mira Sorvino

California Wildlife Center’s marine mammal program owes much of its success to the commitment of the people of Malibu for helping us to preserve this one part of what makes Malibu so special.

StrandCon 2016

Staff attends national conference for marine mammals

By Marine Program Manager Jeff Hallmarine-mammal-stranding-conference

CWC is permitted by NOAA Fisheries to perform all the exciting things that come with marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation. As a member of the West Coast Region Stranding Network, CWC staff attends regional and national conferences to collaborate with other organizations from across the US, learning tips and tricks, improving knowledge of protocols, and gaining insight into new and emerging problems affecting marine mammals.

For all the hours I have sat in conferences, listening to lectures, and watching PowerPoint presentations, one of the main problems that seems to be at the top of many scientists’ lists is marine debris. Marine debris is just like the litter you see on the side of the freeway, but in our oceans.  Most of the ocean’s marine debris comes from land-based sources like freeways.  Trash thrown out of cars or that flies out of the back of trucks is washed straight out to the ocean through storm drain systems. Marine debris has always been a personal issue for me because one of the first marine mammals I ever rescued as a volunteer at CWC was a Guadalupe fur seal entangled in a balloon ribbon.  Luckily, that fur seal was rescued and received the care it needed, but many animals are not so lucky.  Many marine animals ingest trash in the ocean and that can lead to a number of problems, including death due to starvation. The outlook is not all doom and gloom!  The main fact I took away from the National Stranding Network Conference is that there was a conference hall filled with over 200 of the smartest and most dedicated people, all working together to create a healthier environment for marine mammals.  In doing so, we are creating a better world for ourselves.

Green Sea Turtles Invade

CWC’s first ever rescue of a marine reptile

By Marine Program Manager Jeff Hall

A hook can be seen extending from the mouth of this rescued sea turtle. it was caught on a fisherman's pole, most likely after eating the bait on the hook, and reeled into shore. After the animal was rescued by the Marine Department, the hook was removed by staff at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

A hook can be seen extending from the mouth of this rescued sea turtle. it was caught on a fisherman’s pole, most likely after eating the bait on the hook, and reeled into shore. After the animal was rescued by the Marine Department, the hook was removed by staff at the Aquarium of the Pacific.  Photo by Colleen Weiler

Sea turtles are usually something you’d see if you were snorkeling in Hawaii, or maybe during a leisurely catamaran ride off the coast of southern Mexico. While there are populations of sea turtles off the coast of California, you’d have to look pretty hard to actually come across one. Or you could just look at the end of a fishing pole in Malibu.

A sea turtle rescued from rocks after being caught on a fisherman's pole.

A sea turtle rescued from rocks after being caught on a fisherman’s pole. Photo by Jeff Hall

Two green sea turtles were rescued by CWC’s Marine Department this summer; both were hooked on the end of a fisherman’s pole.  The first was rescued from Topanga Beach and the second was rescued from Malibu Pier.  In both cases, the fishermen were more than a little shocked when then hauled in something unexpected.  Both fishermen did the right thing and called CWC’s Emergency Hotline. Marine Program staff and volunteers headed out and rescued the hooked marine mammals. Both were transferred to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach for rehabilitation.  Once admitted, the Aquarium staff took X-rays and discovered that the turtle rescued from Topanga Beach not only had a hook lodged in its mouth, it had also swallowed three more that were in its intestines. Those hooks complicated the rehab process, but they actually passed on their own and did not require surgery.

Staff and volunteers from the Aquarium of the Pacific were on hand to release two green sea turtles rescued by California Wildlife Center's Marine Department. After short stays in rehabilitation at the aquarium, both turtles were returned to the wild after being given a clean bill of health. Photo courtesy of Aquarium of the Pacific

Staff and volunteers from the Aquarium of the Pacific were on hand to release two green sea turtles rescued by California Wildlife Center’s Marine Department. After short stays in rehabilitation at the aquarium, both turtles were returned to the wild after being given a clean bill of health. Photo courtesy of Aquarium of the Pacific

At the Aquarium of the Pacific, the turtle was X-rayed and more hooks were discovered.

At the Aquarium of the Pacific, the turtle was X-rayed and more hooks were discovered. Photo by Jeff Hall

During the rehabilitation process, the turtles were given a PIT tag, similar to what you would give to your pet dog or cat.  These tags contain unique identifying information about the turtles so that, in the future, if they are ever rescued or captured again, a more complete life history can be understood.  After the sea turtles spent some time in the Aquarium of the Pacific’s rehabilitation pool, they were brought out to sea and released, hopefully without a hunger to eat fish off of a fisherman’s lines!


A Marine Rescue of a Different Color

by Jeff Hall, Marine Program Managerimage2crop

I’ve rescued hundreds….maybe even thousands of animals in my career.  From mountain lions and black bears to seals and dolphins, I’ve seen my fair share of different species and had a hand in their rescue.  Never in my career have I rescued a Green Sea Turtle, that is until earlier this month!

A man was fishing off a small rocky cliff at Topanga Beach in Malibu when he caught something on his line he wasn’t expecting.  Green sea turtles are normally warm-water-loving animals more comfortable in the oceans around Hawaii, or Central and South America.  California does have a healthy population of sea turtles, but we usually see Olive-Ridleys in these waters.  

The green sea turtle was hooked by the fisherman’s pole and reeled into shore where the line broke and the turtle became wedged into some rocks.  As waves crashed around us, the rescue team from the California Wildlife Center and I hoisted the 28-pound turtle to our transport van and quickly took it to the Aquarium of the Pacific.  There, the hook was soon removed image4cropand the turtle was placedimage3 in a rehabilitation tank for recovery.  It should be released within a month.  

Fur Seals of Isla Guadalupe

By Staff Veterinarian, Dr. Lorraine Barbosa

This March, I had the amazing privilege of traveling to Isla Guadalupe, a small island off the coast of Baja Mexico, and the primary place in the world where the ESA-listed Guadalupe fur seal breeds. I traveled with a team of scientists from the Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas (CICIMAR-IPN), Sonoma State University, and The Marine Mammal Center, whose research topics included general health assessments, satellite tagging, investigation of environmental and handling stressors, and my project- anesthesia parameters.

Fur Seal Pup by Lorraine Barbosa

Guadalupe fur seals are on the Endangered Species Act list and considered threatened. Photo by Lorraine Barbosa

We traveled first by car to Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, then by 22hr boat ride to the small volcanic island located 250mi into the vast desolation of the Pacific Ocean. Each morning we made a short trek to the fur seal rookery, a long rocky outcropping where waves whipped against the shores and tides ruled our daily routine. There, we were surrounded by the wailing cries of adult females arriving to the rookery from foraging trips, calling back and forth to their bleating pups until they reunited. The young pups whose mothers were away played and jughandled carefree in the tidepools, while the older pups, who for the most part were plump and healthy, sunned themselves on the rocks before heading off into the ocean on their own adventures.

We rotated between catching pups and adult females, overall anesthetizing 15 seals during our stay. Catching the pups was relatively simple: sneak up and grab them with a net while they slept. Catching the adult females took a bit more finesse. They were much more alert and skittish. One had to spend time sneaking up on them, taking small crouched steps forward each time they closed their eyes for just a moment, and pretending to be disinterested in them each time they opened their eyes to reassess our proximity. Once close enough, one had to quickly net the 55kg of unruly muscle and retain her until the others arrived to help. A face mask was then applied, and Isoflurane gas anesthesia was delivered until the seal slipped into unconsciousness. Once asleep, each researcher set out collecting samples for their various research projects. Meanwhile, I monitored heart rate, respiratory rate, and other vital parameters, ensuring the animal was maintained at a proper level of anesthesia. In the evenings we would assemble in our makeshift living room laboratory, all working together to process the day’s samples, until the electricity would go out at 10pm. The anesthesias progressed smoothly and quickly, and before we knew it, so had our time on the island. As we departed on our final day, the rookery again becoming engulfed by the sounds of the thrashing waves and the howling cries of the fur seals, I knew how lucky I was to have had such an incredible experience, and that I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
All activities were conducted under permits (DGVS/00050/16) issued to Dr. Fernando Elorriaga Verplancken (CICIMAR-IPN) by the Mexico Secretaría del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT) and Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP)-Reserva de la Biósfera Isla Guadalupe.


Seal Survives Shark Strike

Northern Elephant Seal Receives Care

Elephant Seal After Rehab by Jeff Hall

After nearly two months of rehabilitation, this Northern elephant seal is ready for release! The injury to the chin caused by a cookiecutter shark has caused permanent scarring to the animal’s chin, but healing progressed well and he should have no lingering effects from the injury. Photo by Jeff Hall

By Marine Program Manager, Jeff Hal

Cookiecutter sharks sound like they’d be something really cute.  I draw images in my head of a rotund little shark, slowly marauding through the ocean with googly eyes, looking for cookie prey.  The reality is something not as lovable.  Cookiecutter sharks have round mouths ringed with teeth.  They will prey upon nearly any animal in the sea by latching onto skin of the animal and spinning, using their sharp teeth to remove a round piece of flesh.  The wound looks like it was made by a cookie cutter, hence the shark’s uniquely cute-sounding name.

1 Elephant Seal Before by Lorraine Barbosa

This Northern elephant seal was rescued by CWC’s Marine Department at La Costa Beach in Malibu with severe injuries to his chin and right side. Photo by Lorraine Barbosa

In April of this year, CWC’s Marine Department rescued an underweight Northern elephant seal pup from La Costa Beach in Malibu that was suffering from two cookiecutter shark wounds.  One was on the animal’s right side; the other was under his chin.  Both were significant, but the chin wound posed the greatest danger as jaw bone was exposed.

Marine Department staff and veterinarians worked daily to ensure the wound was kept clean, not an easy task for an animal that lies on his belly.  With constant cleaning (such as extra scrubbing of the enclosure flooring and letting the seal rest his head on clean towels), a course of antibiotics, numerous surgeries to debride the wound, and a few hundred pounds of fish, this Northern elephant seal was prepared to be returned to the wild!  On June 8, a team of CWC staff and volunteers helped carry his 154 pounds of blubber to the beach for release at Leo Carillo State Beach in Malibu!  Returning animals to the wild is always the most rewarding part of working and volunteering at CWC.

Saving an animal with cookiecutter shark wounds is just one of many examples of the hundreds of animals CWC’s Marine Department responds to each year.  To put it in perspective, in 2015, CWC responded to 568 reports of marine mammals stranded on the beach and rescued a total of 325 animals.  Of the 325 animals rescued, 138 were brought to CWC for rehabilitative care.  If a rescued animal is not taken to CWC’s marine mammal rehabilitation facility it is brought to other regional facilities such as the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro.

Luckily for marine mammals in the area, 2016 has been a somewhat slower season, but the Marine Department has still been responding to high numbers of stranded marine mammals.  In the first six months of 2016, CWC has responded to 331 reports of stranded marine mammals and rescued 208 of those animals.  Of the 208 rescued animals, 52 were brought to CWC for rehabilitative care.  Typically, CWC’s Marine Department sees an increase in rescues during the summer months because of increased human activity at the beaches.  There is also an increase in rescues of California sea lion pups which are born between May and July.  If something happens to a pup’s mother, or if the animal is weaned too early, they will need an organization like California Wildlife Center to help them along.

Whether it is caring for a California sea lion that was entangled in fish netting or rehabilitating a Northern elephant seal with textbook  cookiecutter shark wounds, CWC’s Marine Dept. staff and volunteers are doing our part to return sick and injured wildlife back to nature!