By Nina Wu
SAUSALITO, CALIF. — It took less than a minute.
Schoolchildren, teachers and other members of the public had lined up in a V-shape along the shores of Rodeo Beach in Marin, Calif., to witness the release of two rescued sea lions by staff at The Marine Mammal Center.
Once released from their kennels, California sea lions Zeno and Shackle, did not linger or hesitate. They shuffled quickly along the sand, making a beeline for the ocean. As they entered the water together, a smattering of applause came from the audience.
Then we watched in delight, as their two heads bobbed in the waves. It was a beautiful sight.
Beautiful, because these wild mammals are returning to their natural habitat, where they should be. Beautiful, because they were being given a second chance — humans may have created the problems that hindered them, but humans can also be part of the solution.
What the audience may not have known is how much work it took to get the wild sea lions into the kennel, weighed on a scale, then carefully loaded onto a pickup truck and carted across the sand for the release. Staff and volunteers at the center all played a vital role.
The release was also a small, uplifting celebration in the midst of a sea lion crisis. For the third year in a row, sea lion pups are stranding along the California coastline in record numbers. While the center usually houses about 10 sea lion pups, it was taking care of nearly 100. TIME Magazine on Feb. 18 explored whether the strandings could be caused by rising ocean temperatures impacting the diet of sea lions (squid, anchovies, mackerel).
"We call sea lions sentinels of the sea," said MMC communications curator Sarah van Scagen. "What's going on with them can tell us a lot about the oceans as a whole."
Zeno, a female California sea lion, was rescued from Santa Cruz in January. She was behaving abnormally for a sea lion, and rescuers who picked her up confirmed she was suffering from domoic acid toxicity. Domoic acid, produced by algae, accumulates in shellfish, sardines and anchovies, which in turn, are consumed by sea lions. The biotoxin affects the brain, causing lethargy and disorientation. It can also affect people, so the center gives the health department a heads up when it discovers a case like Zeno's.
For Shackle, a male California sea lion picked up from Monterey, the problem was simpler – he had been entangled with a fishing net around his neck that left a scar. But luckily, once the net was removed, he quickly regained weight and was ready to be released.
Releasing two sea lions together is ideal, according to van Schagen, because they can keep one another company. Sea lions are, by nature, social animals.
That seemed apparent — the pair seemed as if they were immediately bonded as they headed into the waves.
TMMC, founded in 1975, is the non-profit that recently celebrated the grand opening of Ke Kai Ola (The Healing Sea), the first monk seal hospital at NELHA in Kona, in September. With more than $3.2 million raised in funds, TMMC was able to build four pens with pools – two for juvenile and adult seals and two for pups, along with a fish kitchen, medical lab and seawater filtration infrastructure for the pools.
Ke Kai Ola's first patients were four young, malnourished monk seals — Kulia, Ikaika, Hala‘i and Maka‘ala — from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. They were admitted in July, and released (nice and fat again) on Aug. 31. The center's current patients are Meleana and Pua, also from the NWHI, who were admitted as malnourished pups in September. Hopefully, they'll be released soon, too.