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Environment & Science

The annual race to save sea lions... and one who can't be saved

A baby sea lion at the California Wildlife Center.
A baby sea lion at the California Wildlife Center.
RH Greene
A baby sea lion at the California Wildlife Center.
California Wildlife Center's Mike Remski, with a sea lion on the beach near Malibu that may have been killed by humans, in violation of the law.
A baby sea lion at the California Wildlife Center.
California Wildlife Center's Colleen Weiler, with a sea lion on the beach near Malibu. Its skin has been stripped off, and it's tail neatly severed, probably by humans.
Nick Teague
A baby sea lion at the California Wildlife Center.
California Wildlife Center's Mike Remski uses "boarding" technique to hide himself as he feeds sea lions 1, 2, 4, and 5. They don't name them because they don't want to imprint on them.
RH Greene
A baby sea lion at the California Wildlife Center.
California Wildlife Center's Executive Director Jennifer Brent in front of the Rabies Unit, where animals prone to rabies are treated.
RH Greene

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Some of the images in the slideshow, plus the text and audio, include graphic details about the death of a sea lion. It may be too intense for kids and some adults.

It's a beautiful day at Point Dume on the Malibu Coast. Torrential winter rains have paused, leaving the sky clear, the clifftop vegetation lush and green. Yellow wildflowers bloom on the bluffs like a promise of spring.

Then, Colleen Weiler spots something dead on the beach. The animal corpse is hard to see from the high bluffs, but Colleen has practiced eyes. "It is white," Colleen says, squinting into the sun. "And there appear to be some intestines coming out of it. And it's very, very decomposed."

Colleen works for the California Wildlife Center in Malibu. The CWC rescues distressed wildlife,  everything from squirrels and raccoons to hawks and sea turtles to -- each year from January through April -- undernourished sea lions which have beached themselves on the Malibu Coast searching for warmth and food. Their numbers and condition, and the heroic efforts needed to save them, are harbingers for the state of the California coast.

And since sea lion and elephant seal rescue season has just begun, Colleen is at Point Dume a lot. "Point Dume in Malibu is special just 'cause the sea lions tend to congregate around this area," Colleen says. "And then the sicker ones will kind of go to either side."

Soon we're trudging down the face of the seacliff on rickety stairs. CMC Marine Program Manager Mike Remski says the Centers hauls ill and starving animals up these shaky steps all the time. "The biggest animal we've carried out of Point Dume is probably a 200 pound adult female sea lion," Mike says. "It's not easy. It's very heavy. It takes a lot of time. But with enough people we get it done."


Watch the CWC rescue sea lions

At the waterline, the animal carcass is a disturbing site. It's a skinless adult sea lion, in an advanced state of decomposition. The tail is missing -- cleanly severed, in one surgical slice. "Not a boat," Mike says. Colleen agrees. "I don't think a propeller would completely chop it in half. A shark bite would be more ragged and not quite as clean..."

Almost reluctantly, Colleen and Mike arrive at a dark  hypothesis ... but the most logical. "It is suspicious," Mike says. "I mean that could be human interaction right there. It could have been sliced in half by some kind of machete or knife."

If human beings did this, this remote stretch of California beach is a crime scene. This time of year the waters off Point Dume are blanketed with squid boats and net fisherman. California sea lions eat lots of squid, especially since rising ocean temperatures drove the fatty fish they prefer to colder depths. It's plausible this sea lion got caught in a squid boat's dragnet and was then killed as a convenience, or for its skin ... or even its penis, considered an aphrodisiac in parts of Asia.

Colleen bends down and plucks a whisker off the corpse. "From whiskers and fur we can actually get information," she says, "on age and sex, contaminant levels, what kind of toxins were in the animal. There's a lot that you can find in little random body parts."

Back at the California Wildlife Center headquarters Malibu, they’re training a half-dozen new volunteers. Both Mike Remski and Colleen Weiler began as CWC volunteers as they pursued advanced training in Marine biology. The head of the center, Jennifer Brent, says volunteerism is their lifeblood. "We have volunteers who are coming 50, 70 miles who show up on a weekly basis. They exhibit such a level of dedication and commitment to these animals its really astonishing."

Outside, four baby sea lions in a chain link cage are hungry for food and attention. They're cute and scrawny, and the first orphans of the season. But they aren't pets. They're specimens. I ask Mike Remski if rescued animals are named. "We do actually," Mike says. "Those animals are Number 1, Number 2, Number 4 and Number 5."

The pups are both starving and dehydrated. The smallest are force-fed water through a plastic tube. It's lifesaving, but disturbing to see. The pups accept it passively.

Heather Henderson, the Center's Strandings Coordinator, corals the pups, separating them as they squabble over food. She's shielded like a gladiator. A waist-high board hides her body from the pups. This guards Heather from bites. It also protects the animals from habituation to their caretakers.

"It's a loving relationship," Heather says, "but in a way where we want them to stay wild while we're loving them. They're very intelligent. They can become imprinted on us even when we're not intending for that. We have to be very cautious about how we behave. My best moment of the multiple hours of rehabilitation is watching them spin off and basically hoping to never see them again. That they're getting that second chance and they're going to thrive."

It will be six weeks before these pups return to the sea -- a nerve-wracking time for the CWC.

In both 2013 and 2015, Mass sea lion die offs overloaded every local marine mammal facility. CWC staff veterinarian Lorraine Barbosa was at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito for the 2013 crisis, and at CWC in 2015. She describes a creeping sense of horror.

"We would always start to get these young sea lions coming in," Dr. Barbosa says. "And instead of getting five animals a day we were getting six and then seven and then eight. So it kind of was a little bit gradual at the beginning. But then it just didn't stop. We just kept getting more and more animals. And then we were hearing that all the other facilities were getting more and more animals too. And then all of a sudden we were all like, 'Oh God. This is a crisis. 'There's something really major going on here."

Research indicates a warming Pacific Ocean is continuing to cause drastic shifts in both habitat and eating patterns for California's sea lions. "It has to do with the warming waters," Dr. Barbosa says. "The mothers who are nursing their pups were having to leave for longer and longer foraging trips to get enough food for themselves. Some pups were being abandoned altogether and some were just kind of leaving on their own because they were starving because they were alone for so long and they were starving."

Recalling the "unusual mortality events" of 2013 and 2015, CWC Executive Director Jennifer Brent is philosophical.

"Oftentimes the animals that we're dealing with are really sentinels for what's going on in the environment," Brent says. "People are not always kind to animals. We've seen animals certainly that have been shot, animals that were caught by nets. Last year, they found a sea lion that had been skinned alive and was still alive when they found it on the beach. So there's certainly people who are not kind to animals out there, who don't have the same compassion that are volunteers and staff do."

Still, the dedication of her co-workers gives Jennifer Brent hope: "I absolutely believe in the future of animals. I think that as we become more conscious of how we interact with them, as we have more opportunities to work with animals, we understand how we have an active role in protecting them."