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Photos: Mystery ailment afflicts sea lion pups in Orange County

Weak sea lion pups

Mary Plummer

These malnourished and dehydrated pups are recovering in the "intensive care unit" of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.

Visitors check out the outdoor sea lion pens at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center is at 10 times its normal capacity due to an increase in stranded sea lion pups. A caretaker said it's likely only 80 percent of the animals will survive.

Workers at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center where gloves to handle the sea lions. The center encourages the public to stay 50 yards away from sea lions found in the wild to avoid getting bit.

Adult sea lions at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.

Sea Lion Rescue Center

Mary Plummer

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach rescued 12 sea lion pups on Saturday alone -- breaking its prior one-day record.

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.”

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