The sea lion came right up to Cole. We were swimming near the rocks at Cabrillo Beach Saturday, bobbing on surf (he) and boogie (me) boards. The sun was shining and the water temperature was actually bearable — with the right gear. Wearing his hood, boots and wetsuit, my son was covered head to toe in black neoprene. Maybe he looked like a seal. I don’t know, but the baby sea lion came RIGHT up to him, face to face.
We knew that something was wrong. Pinnipeds can be friendly at Cabrillo, but this one was too small to be on its own. After saying hello to Cole, it swam over to the rocks and dragged itself ashore. My 9-year-old followed closely, scrambling over the wet rocks with admittedly super-human agility, reaching out and touching his companion.
“Don’t do that Cole!” I shouted, but the seal said it better than I could, hissing and growling. The kid decided valor was the better part of caution, and retreated to a nearby boulder, to wait while I got help.
We’re regular enough visitors to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro that we know pinniped pups frequently wash ashore, either orphaned, weaned too soon, or failing to thrive on their own. It was apparent that this one — Cole dubbed him Jason, for the heroic Greek wanderer of the seas — was struggling. The sea lion was skin and bones. He coughed — “Look, he has the seal cough!” Cole joked, because that’s what we always call it when Cole gets bronchitis. He collapsed onto the rocks, cold and tired. It was a summer-in-winter California day, and the heat radiated from the basalt and granite. It felt good to lie there near him, keeping curious passers-by at a safe distance and waiting for Animal Rescue.
It took a concerted effort to get help. First, I ran over to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. They promised to call animal rescue and send someone over to check on Jason later — but no one ever came. Finally I ran home and called the Marine Mammal Care Center myself. I reached rescuer Peter directly, but he was in the middle of a call in Marina Del Rey. He promised to come next.
Jason hugged the rocks. His fur turned grayish blond as he dried off. If you didn’t know he was there, you wouldn’t see him, he was so perfectly camouflaged. He adjusted himself occasionally. He looked at us with his big eyes. He seemed to feel safe around Cole. But after an hour, a 9-year-old’s patience flags. Once Cole left, Jason threw himself into the ocean for a drink, then dragged himself up to the top of the rocks, as far from me and my friend as he could. We did NOT look like sea lions.
Eventually, I did what I should have done first – told the lifeguards. They had a direct line to Peter, who, it turns out, had had to return to Dockweiler Beach for a couple more stranded pups. See, it’s a boom year for starving sea lions; no one really knows why.
Peter finally arrived, in a pickup truck with a spaniel in the cab and a bunch of pet crates in the back. He covers from Malibu to Long Beach, including Catalina. Jason was his 64th rescue that week.
The sea lion was so weak he barely resisted as Peter swooped his giant net over him and scooped him up. A lifeguard helped pull Jason up to the boardwalk, but at about 25 pounds, Peter could carry the pup himself.
“Two sea lions came in from Cabrillo yesterday,” he said.
“The other one must have been later,” I said. We were swimming in the morning; it was about 2 when Peter took Jason.
The attendant checked again. “The second one didn’t make it, but the first one’s over there,” he said, and pointed to a corner teeming with young sea lions. We had been looking in the critical care pen. But Jason, it seemed, was faring better than those sad mammals. Just that day, at the very beach where we rescued him, another pup hadn’t made it.
It was amazing to help rescue such a beautiful creature. Cole and I are going to keep checking at the center, try to follow Jason’s care, if we can. But we know that the facility is overwhelmed,and can’t necessarily keep track of one animal. If you live in San Pedro, here‘s their wish list of items. If you don’t, here‘s where you can donate to help feed Jason and his ilk, until they’re strong enough to be released and hopefully, this time, make it on their own.