Rescued sea lion pups at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, California. (PMMC) Enlarge

It began in January. At first, there were only a few. But as the weeks went on, more sea lion pups washed ashore. The dehydrated, emaciated pups showed up on Southern California’s beaches, tucked under trucks and lifeguard towers. One was found huddled in a flower pot.

In late January, scientists surveying Channel Island sea lion rookeries reported something worrying: Pups out there were in bad shape. By early February, regional marine mammal rescue centers were concerned.

The strandings hadn’t stopped. Instead, the pace was picking up.

Now, hundreds of these little animals have been admitted to rescue centers between Santa Barbara and San Diego. For a non-El Niño year, the numbers are much too high, too early. Something is going badly wrong offshore, and no one knows what it is yet.

“We’re in the process of trying to understand what is actually causing this,” said Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist with the National Fisheries Service. “The stranding centers in Southern California are being inundated with animals. It hasn’t hit the northern centers yet.”

As of Mar. 13, 517 pups had been admitted to five Southern California rescue centers. That total is higher than the total for some entire years, said Sarah Wilkin, regional strandings coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “And we’re only two months and a week in.”

Rescue and Rehab

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