A couple of weeks ago I went to the beach with my dog. It is a beach in Seaside that I frequent not because it is the most beautiful area, but because it is close to my house, allows dogs and is peaceful. But lately, there has been a change. In the last couple of weeks almost every time I have been to this beach, I have come upon at least one (and sometimes two or three) dead sea lions. On this particular day, instead of seeing a dead sea lion, I saw one that was still alive.
Now let me back up. At present, I am an Ocean Conservation Intern with Ocean Champions and as part of the job I manage their social media. Among other things, this means that I read a ton of ocean-related news. What I am trying to say is that I was well aware of recent news regarding the thousands of starving California sea lion pups washing ashore. So it was a surprise to find one that did not appear to be starving even if it was in terribly bad shape. Before I had a chance to process the situation, the sea lion started having a seizure. It was one of those awful moments when you wish you could look away, but instead find yourself staring on, horrified. The sea lion started convulsing – on its side, one of its fins straight up in the air as its eyes rolled to the back of its head. It was shocking and confusing. Why wasn’t this sea lion a pup? Shouldn’t it be starving rather than convulsing?
There was a woman standing near the sea lion and I asked her if she’d had a chance to call one of the rescue centers for help. She said she had (about an hour before) but that the volunteers from the Marine Mammal Center were swamped. They told her they’d already picked up 16 sea lions that morning and had 5 calls to answer before they could come. That’s 21 sea lions in one day! Before 10 a.m. I just didn’t realize how dire the situation was.
I kept my distance because I had my dog with me and didn’t want to cause the sea lion unnecessary stress. I felt like I had to do something, even if that something was just sitting there, trying to provide comfort to an animal in the last moments of its life. The woman (whose name I never did get) asked if I could wait because she had to get going and I told her I didn’t mind. So we sat. My dog and I sat in the sand watching the sea lion. Every so often, it would have another seizure. Each time, I could have sworn it would be the last as the convulsions progressively got more intense, each lasting longer than the one prior.
Before long, another woman (whose name I later found out was Colleen) approached and asked if I had called anyone. I said that another woman had, but after a brief discussion, we decided to call again. They were friendly and pleasant, but basically said the same thing – that they would be there as soon as they could. So Colleen and I (and my dog Liza) waited. At this point, I had been there for hours with this sea lion. I was sunburned and my dog was thirsty, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to leave. Maybe it was the heat and maybe I was losing my mind, but I felt connected to the sea lion. My dog, who is usually a complete spaz, was lying on her belly staring at this pitiful creature. And each time the sea lion would have a seizure, its deep, black eyes seemed to be staring through me and asking, “Why aren’t you helping me?” For hours, I had kept the tears at bay as I watched this animal suffer, but as we waited in silence, they finally started sweeping down my cheeks. I felt heartbroken. I felt guilty. I felt stupid for crying. I felt like I should be doing something. It was the most helpless moment of my life.
Since that day, I have researched California sea lions and have come to find out that not only are sea lion pups starving because their mothers are having to travel farther in search of food, but that warming ocean temperatures cause the proliferation of algae. Certain types of algae contain domoic acid, which is a neurotoxin that can cause memory loss, seizures and death. Record numbers of California sea lions have turned up on beaches this year after consuming domoic acid in contaminated food sources, which seemed to be what this particular sea lion was suffering from. Scientists have also reported a ‘warm blob’ or giant area of warm water in the eastern Pacific Ocean, but do not know what is causing it. Thus far, experts have not found a link between this odd occurrence and climate change. However, more sea lion pups are washing ashore at the point of starvation each year even without a ‘warm blob.’ Does that mean climate change is the root cause? Either way, the health of our oceans is in decline.
I left that day feeling disheartened, but since then, things have turned around. I have had the wonderful opportunity of working for Ocean Champions and have realized how crucial the work that they are doing is for our oceans. One of the things that I most appreciate about Ocean Champions is their effort to be bipartisan. Problems regarding our oceans are not Republican problems or Democrat problems. They are everyone’s problems. Ocean Champions seeks to highlight ocean issues by putting them front and center on the political agenda. I feel blessed to be associated with an organization that I admire.
Watching the sea lion suffer that day, I felt like there was nothing that I could do. But then I realized that this sea lion was probably suffering after consuming toxic algae and that I work for an organization that fights to pass legislation addressing the causes of harmful algal blooms. I also realized that even though I could not save it, I could focus on bringing awareness and could contribute in some small way. Maybe, if we all contribute in some small way, we can make a difference for our oceans and our planet.
Now you may be wondering how this story ends and I really wish I could tell you, but I don’t know. Colleen and I stood there for quite some time and eventually, a lifeguard in a white truck pulled up. We explained the situation and he said he would wait for the rescuers. At that point, I had been there for over 3 hours, had missed my first class and was about to be late for the next. So, I gazed at the sea lion one last time and even though I am not religious, I prayed that its suffering would end soon. Then I left. I wish I had stayed.
Other than her name and the fact that she had an in depth knowledge of sea lions, I know nothing about Colleen. All I can say is that it was comforting to have someone to share that tragic experience with and I’m thankful that she was there. I had asked the Marine Mammal Center if they could keep me updated, so roughly an hour after I left I received a call saying that they were finally on their way. I followed up the next day to find out what happened and they said that no sea lions were brought in. I do not know what that means. I asked if the sea lion went back into the water and the woman on the phone said probably. I simply do not believe that. The sea lion could barely move when it wasn’t convulsing. The studies that I have read since that day state that unless treated immediately, sea lions with neurotoxic poisoning usually die. But who knows? Maybe this one didn’t have neurotoxic poisoning. Maybe it miraculously recovered and swam away. And maybe the woman from the Marine Mammal Center just did not want to tell me that the sea lion had died. I guess we’ll never know.