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Human "helping" a danger for beached marine mammals

Greta Mart
"Sea Noodle," shown here in one of the holding pens at the Marine Mammal Center Morro Bay, was found in a distressed condition on Avila Beach.


It’s pupping season on the Central Coast for animals like seals and sea lions, but some marine mammal mothers are abandoning their pups because of human interaction. 

Harbor seals, sea lions and elephant seals are all common visitors to the Marine Mammal Center (MMC) facility in Morro Bay. From there, a team of volunteers rescue and triage sick or abandoned animals. Once stable, the animals are often transported to the center’s main hospital in Sausalito, CA, where the animals continue their treatments until they are ready to be released back into the wild.

Diana Kramer is the operations manager for the Morro Bay center. Kramer said a cause for pup abandonment actually comes from people trying to help the animal, especially in the case of harbor seals.

"Sometimes they’re sick; sometimes they’re just young and they need rest," Kramer said. "So, when people crowd them it can cause stress on them. It can cause injury. In the case of harbor seals, the moms leave the pups onshore sometimes to go look for food. People are crowding those pups. The mom might be too scared to come back and actually abandon their pups.”

Kramer said keeping your distance from marine mammals is not only keeping the animals safe but also the people.

“You see these elephant seals and they appear very lazy and they’re just laying there sleeping, passed out on the beach," Kramer said. "They’re huge they’re really cool. People want to go up and get the selfie. Don’t go get the selfie. They can move. You’re in the time where these guys, they’re in their breeding season—they are looking for love and you don’t want to be the one that interferes or gets on their bad side when they’re kind of looking for a mate or they didn’t make it and they’re frustrated. So, they can kind of come to life and move very quickly.”

Human disturbance is the reason for the MMC’s new campaign called "Leave Seals Be," urging the public not to take matters into their own hands, but rather to call the center. Kramer said although people might have good intentions, it’s harmful to disturb the animals.

“Marine mammals can quickly overheat so people’s kind of first instinct is they see a small pup on the beach and they’re like, ‘oh i’ve got to get it and wrap it up in a towel,’ " Kramer said. "That can be a lot worse for the animal. They live in a cold ocean environment. Wrapping them up can cause a lot of health problems that wouldn’t otherwise happen from them just being more cool.”

Kramer said the best thing to do when you see a marine mammal that looks in trouble, is to call the center’s 24 hour rescue line at 415 289 SEAL.

This week the Morro Bay team responded to a call about an elephant seal in Avila Beach. The animal, named by the callers, is now known as “Sea Noodle.” Sea Noodle was experiencing malnutrition so the team brought the animal back to the triage center.

At 8 a.m. Wednesday, for the morning feeding, the veterinary team stepped onto a sanitizing mat to cover their boots in Accel, an organic sanitizer to prevent any bacteria transfer. A vet restrained the animal while another inserted a feeding tube.

Human disturbance isn’t just happening on the Central Coast. The center has locations in Monterey, Santa Cruz and Mendocino and in 2016 there were 40 maternal separations the center responded to along the California Coast.

Disturbances can also happen offshore. Gena Bentall is the program coordinator for Sea Otter Savvy, an organization that aims to prevent disturbances of sea otters on the Central Coast. Bentall said that kayakers often disturb sea otters when they get too close. This is particularly difficult because sea otters don’t have the ability to store a lot of energy.

“When you add in additional energy expenditure like swimming away from a disturbance and that happens repeatedly throughout a day then that can really create a deficit situation in their energy budget,” Bentall said.

Bentall said sea otter mothers are most affected by disturbances because they’re already using extra energy nurturing the pups. To avoid disturbing sea otters, kayakers should stay about five kayak lengths away from the animals. For land mammals, a change in their behavior is an indicator that a person is too close. 

Sea Otter Savvy is working with businesses like kayak rental shops and creating kayak decals to spread their message.