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Photos: Mystery ailment afflicts sea lion pups in Orange County

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Southern California is seeing an increase in the stranded sea lion pups — and scientists aren’t sure exactly what's causing it.

“The overall numbers we’re seeing this year are just very, very elevated,” said Sarah Wilkin, who studies sea lion populations for the National Marine Fishery Service for California. “For these facilities to be so overwhelmed at this time of year is very strange.”

This is typically the slow season for stranded sea lions, according to Wilkin. Not this year.

On Saturday alone, the nonprofit Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach took in 12 sea lions, breaking its one-day take in record. It took in another nine in the next few days. 

“I get in here at 5:45 a.m. and the first thing I do is take care of our most critical patients,” said Kirsten Sedlick, the animal care supervisor at the center. Sedlick said the center has squeezed in 10 times the normal number of rescues. It has been so swamped the center declared a state of emergency.

“A lot of them you can see their rib cage, their hip bones showing so you can see they’re extremely malnourished,” Sedlick said. (Watch a live webcam of the seals at the center.)

To look for a cause, scientists are researching animals that prey on sea lions. They said it's also possible the sea lions are having trouble finding steady a steady food supply.

Like any nursery, Pacific Marine Mammal Center does a lot of laundry — 20 loads a day. The center also goes through a lot of food — 275 pounds of fish and 25 bottles of Pedialite. A typical sea lion spends two to four months at the center at a cost of more than $1,000 before it can be released back into the ocean.

Despite their best efforts, center officials said it’s likely not all of the sea lion pups will survive — they’d be happy with an 80 percent survival rate.

To help pay the bills, the center is open to the public, eagerly accepts donations and runs a gift shop.

Miriah Martinez, 10, was among a group of fourth graders visiting from Anaheim.  It was the first time she'd ever seen a sea lion.

“They were really adorable, she said. “My wish for the sea lions is to be able to help them.”

With contributions from Darrin Johnson

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