Northern Elephant Seals released near the Channel Islands
By Marine Program Manager, Jeff Hall
Waves crash along the side of the high-speed catamaran as we cruise across the Santa Barbara Channel to Santa Rosa Island. Two very special passengers are onboard the Island Explorer, a pair of Northern Elephant Seal pups. Rescued, rehabilitated, and now, ready to be released by California Wildlife Center’s (CWC) Marine Program, the two seals were patients at the Center for just over two months. During that time the seals gained nearly 100 pounds each on a diet of herring, first in the form of a “fish smoothie” then as whole fish.
CWC’s marine mammal rehabilitation facility, now in its second year, was first built in response to the Unusual Mortality Event (UME) declared by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 2013. Effects of the UME continue to be felt and CWC’s Marine Mammal Rescue (MMR) Team has rescued over 180 seals and sea lions so far this year. Theories vary widely as to the origin of last year’s UME, everything from global warming, pollution, and radiation poisoning have been tossed around as potential causes. However the official preliminary report from NMFS states that the likely cause was a “change in the availability of sea lion prey, especially sardines, a high value food source for nursing mothers” (source: NOAA Fisheries 2013 California Sea Lion Unusual Mortality Event in California).
Passengers of the Island Explorer, owned by Island Packers, peered curiously at the transport crates on the back of the catamaran. After hikers and campers disembarked onto Santa Rosa Island, the last disembarkation of the day was ready to happen. In a Marine Protected Area (MPA) on the northwest side of the island two more Northern Elephant Seal pups were returned to the wild, healthy and prepared for their new home.