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On Common Ground: What to do when you come across a sea lion, seal ashore

A Northern elephant seal, which is among the mammals rescued in Malibu in the spring, is pictured. Photo Submitted
Mike Remski, Marine Mammal Program Manager, California Wildlife Center
8:18 am PST February 21, 2017

The transition to spring brings with it an abundance of marine life along Malibu’s 27 miles of shoreline.  

During this time, it’s not uncommon to find marine mammals hauled out on our beaches, often on public beaches, very close to beach-goers. Unlike whales and dolphins, it is not unusual for seals and sea lions to be out of the water, so seeing one on the beach doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in trouble. Northern elephant seals and California sea lions will frequently come ashore to sun themselves and warm up, to rest, and at times to recover from injury or illness. 

Spring in particular is the season when many young animals are experiencing life on their own for the first time and often stop on our beaches to rest.  

It is important to remember, however, that regardless of how cute and cuddly these animals appear, they are wild animals with the capacity to inflict great harm when provoked. Likewise, we can cause them great harm by approaching too closely and disturbing their natural behavior.   

Seals and sea lions on shore are there for a reason, and causing stress or forcing them back into the water before they’re ready to go may hurt the animals.  

When these animals make their way up on to the crowded beaches here in Malibu, people often wonder what they should do, if anything, and how they can help. 

What not to do is actually more important than what to do. When a seal or sea lion strands, you should not attempt to feed it, pour water on it, or attempt to coax it back into the ocean. 

Instead, give them plenty of space. A good rule of thumb is to leave at least 50 feet between any hauled-out animal and yourself. Keep your pets close at hand. Dogs can become curious around wild animals and end up injuring a seal or sea lion, or even getting bitten themselves. If possible, advise others to keep a safe distance as well. Although usually well-intentioned, interfering with a stranded marine mammal is illegal, and can cause harm to the animal. If it is scared back into the water, it will not get the rest or the warmth that it came ashore to find.

How you can help the animal is by calling us. Many of the animals that come ashore, especially on crowded beaches, are in need of medical attention. 

That’s where California Wildlife Center comes in. If you spot a marine mammal on shore, call us at (310) 458-WILD (9453) with a description of the animal and an exact location. Detailed information such as the animal’s color, size, and behavior is very helpful to us in determining the equipment and crew that will be needed.  

We will send a team out to check on the animal, and perform a rescue if it is sick or injured. Whales and dolphins out of the water are always a cause for concern, and CWC as well as local lifeguards should be called right away.  

We see all ages and sizes of California sea lions in Malibu, from pups in the spring to adults any time of year. Sea lions range from chocolate brown to light tan in color, and have long flippers that they can get up and walk around on. They are amazing climbers, and we often find them in odd locations up on rocks or on someone’s back porch. Sea lions have pointed, dog-like noses and tiny ear flaps called pinnae on the sides of their heads.  

In contrast, Northern elephant seals have big, round heads with shorter noses and no ear flaps. They are silvery-gray to light brown and have large, dark eyes. With very short front flippers, elephant seals are a lot more awkward on land than sea lions and do a worm-like belly crawl to move. 

Occasionally, we also have Pacific harbor seals on shore. Smaller than elephant seals, these seals have round heads and short front flippers, and are distinguishable by their spots.

Each year, CWC rescues hundreds of sick and injured marine mammals, and we care for many of them at our facility. Our busy season is concentrated around March and April, when most young pups are starting to venture out on their own. Although these pups are old enough to survive on their own, many do not find enough to eat, or succumb to illness or injury while in this vulnerable transition period. 

Remember that although young animals look adorable and harmless, they can deliver a nasty bite, and approaching too closely can hurt you and the animal. Share our shores with these remarkable marine mammals, and contact our hotline if you find one in the Malibu area.

On Common Ground is a new monthly column written by various California Wildlife Center employees. CWC, a nonprofit located in Calabasas, cares for injured wildlife in Malibu and beyond.