ENCINITAS — Normally, Annie Howe, a senior ocean lifeguard with the Encinitas Lifeguards, is busy watching the water in anticipation of having to save someone from the ocean.
But with wintry weather keeping swimmers out of the water, she was instead busy making rescues of another kind.
By the time her shift was over on Monday, Howe had responded to two rescue calls for sea lion pups that stranded themselves near Moonlight Beach.
The latest rescue was the fourth in three weeks on Encinitas beaches, and, according to Howe it was the 17th sea lion from San Diego County beaches to be rescued and turned over to SeaWorld.
“It’s not an unusual number,” said David Koontz, communications director for SeaWorld, who confirmed the amount of rescued sea lions brought to SeaWorld so far.
“This is a time of the year that we will start to see more sea lions, especially those animals that have weaned within the last month or so from their mother, that were born in the pupping season last year,” Koontz said. “Most of those pups, once they wean from their mother, get out and survive on their own just like they’re supposed to. But you have a percentage of them that just either haven’t quite caught on, or as we say, ‘just haven’t quite figured it out yet.’”
Depending on whether it’s an El Nino or La Nina year, which can have an impact, generally speaking, the beginning of the year is the time when the numbers of rescues increase, Koontz explained. Most of the rescues tend to taper off into May.
When the pups do strand themselves they’re mostly in a state of malnourishment and their behavior can be docile, Howe said, but it depends, she added. “Mostly though, they’re going to be docile just because they are sickly. But even though they are like that, it’s best not to approach them, or get near them, or even try to chase them back into the water because they will just come back ashore.”
Howe said that the best thing to do if someone comes across a sea lion that’s stranded itself is to call or tell lifeguards; she warned that the pups could absolutely be dangerous. “They look like puppies, but they’re not tame like puppies,” she said.
On finding her latest rescue against some rocks along a bluff, Howe noticed that it had a tag on it. She said the tag could be the result of the pup having been rescued at a previous time.
“If an animal does have a tag on it that means it’s a re-strand,” Koontz said.
Koontz added that if the tagged sea lion was a pup that would mean it had already been rescued this year and that would be unusual.
Sea World is an agent for the National Marine Fishery Service, which oversees the rehabilitation program for sea animals.
“One of the requirements is once you rescue an animal, and that animal is rehabilitated and is deemed a candidate to be returned to the ocean, we put a tag on it,” Koontz said.
The tag is logged and if the animal does re-strand itself, rescuers are able to learn the history of the animal.
On Tuesday, Koontz was able to confirm that the tagged sea lion was a female and estimated to be about 7-months-old. He said that she had been rescued Nov. 6 in Oxnard, Calif. by a rescue team from the Santa Barbara area and was later returned to the ocean on Jan. 5 off of Santa Cruz Island.
Koontz added that the sea lion was brought in a bit underweight and dehydrated, but was resting comfortably at SeaWorld and is also eating.
They expect to do a more thorough medical examination in the coming days.
“Our goal is to return as many animals as we can to the wild,” Koontz said. “On an average we probably do between 60 and 70 percent.”
A smaller percentage of the animals can’t be returned because they wouldn’t be able to survive on their own and are placed in long-term care at SeaWorld or another zoological facility.
The Encinitas Lifeguards can be reached by calling (760) 633-2750.