In recent months, more than 1,000 starving baby sea lions have been found on Southern California beaches, from Santa Barbara to San Diego. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has just declared the crisis an "unusual mortality event."
On a recent early morning, Peter Wallerstein is on the job on a beach near Marina del Rey, Calif. His white truck is a familiar sight along this coastline. Next to him, a small blond dog named Pumpkin rides shotgun.
Wallerstein, the Marine Animal Rescue director for Friends of Animals, gets a call. A woman tells him she spotted a sea lion at the Fisherman's Wharf at Cabrillo. "He's just laying there; he doesn't look good," she says.
The phone rings every five minutes, and it's always about the same thing.
There's another call. This time, it's a man telling Wallerstein that there's a sea mammal that looks hurt.
More Pups On Shores
Since the beginning of the year, Wallerstein has picked up more than 300 sick and dying California sea lion pups. In 27 years of doing this work, he says, he's never seen anything like it.
"We wonder why there's no fish in the water, why the pups were born at such a low body weight. So they started out weak and cold and hungry, and it hasn't got any better when they're already weaned by mom and trying to find food, and they're not finding it," Wallerstein explains.
For two days, a baby sea lion has been stranded on a nearby dock. The people who made the call are relieved to see Wallerstein.
He gently places a large fishing net over the pup. Normally, there would be some resistance, but this baby sea lion hardly moves. Wallerstein is asked the same question he hears more than a dozen times a day: "Will it be OK?"
"I'm going to do the best I can for her," he says.
His next stop is a crowded pier. After navigating a rock wall, Wallerstein carries another weak pup back to his truck and gently transfers it to a dog crate.
"To date [since Jan. 1], we're at 1,100 California sea lion admits to rehabilitation, and the historical average for the same time period is about 130," says Sarah Wilkin, a marine biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
She says the main theory scientists are investigating is that the prey — the smaller fish these animals feed on — are just not available. The mystery is why.
"These sea lions might be our sentinel that tells us something else is going on that's going to be affecting other fish, that's going to be affecting sharks, that could have much broader concerns throughout the ocean," Wilkins says.
Sick Pups' Fate
It's late afternoon. There are six baby sea lions in the back of Wallerstein's truck. In recent weeks, marine mammal centers that have been rehabilitating the pups have reached maximum capacity.
He takes a deep breath and makes the call.
The center can only take the two most critical baby sea lions. So Wallerstein drives the others to a more secluded beach where he hopes they won't be bothered by people.
"It breaks my heart to see these little skinny pups being left here. And you could see they don't want to go into the water, they want to come back to the beach," Wallerstein says. "I don't think they're going to make it on their own."
From the shore, people cheer when the young sea lions move toward the cold waves. But within minutes, the weakened pups come back, trying to find warmth on the sand.