MALIBU — Three elephant seal pups became perhaps the first of their kind to experience life in the Santa Monica Mountains Tuesday, leaving the sound of ocean waves behind as they entered a newly constructed rehabilitation facility at the California Wildlife Center.
The 100-pound pups were transported in vans from the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro to a new shelter at the California Wildlife Center’s headquarters in Malibu Canyon off Piuma Road.
The temporary shelter is part of a larger emergency effort by rescue groups in Los Angeles County to accommodate a massive influx of sickly California sea lion pups that have stranded on local beaches in record numbers in 2013. It was built in just three weeks.
“We brought in a new staff member with marine mammal rehab experience, and it’s truly been a team effort with the staff to make this happen in such a short amount of time,” said former center Executive Director Cindy Reyes, who hurried back herself from a recent move to Florida to help coordinate construction of the shelter.
The center, which is tasked with rescuing beached marine mammals along Malibu’s 27 miles of coastline and transporting them to the Marine Mammal Care Center, was asked by the National Marine Fisheries Service to set up a temporary marine mammal facility to help handle an overflow of starving sea lion pups that have inundated area mammal shelters. More than 1,300 starving, emaciated pups have stranded on Southern California beaches since the start of the year, including more than 200 in Malibu.
The large new outdoor enclosure with three separate pens was constructed to meet government specifications for marine mammal rehabilitation. Each of the three pens boasts a portable, 18-inch deep metal swimming pool, plastic panel decking, doors and a chain-link roof for protection from predators. The effort also required setting up a separate kitchen from the rest of the center. Hall said a new freezer will hold up to 400 pounds of fish, and they expect to use 25 to 125 pounds of fish per day.
Since Marine Mammal Care Center is currently filled to capacity with sea lions, it was decided that the center would focus on elephant seals at its new facility. Elephant seal pups are just now beginning to strand on local beaches — an annual event that is unrelated to the sea lion crisis. Unlike sea lions, who teach their young to swim and hunt; elephant seal moms return to the sea a month after giving birth, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves. While some make it, others don’t find enough food and end up on local beaches.
Not exactly known for their silence, the typical screams and howls of elephant seals, which have been likened to a troop of chimpanzees and can be heard far away, will now become part of the everyday atmosphere at the wildlife center.
Mike Remski, marine mammal rehabilitation manager for the center, said the pups will be kept for a maximum of two months before being released back into the ocean. The pups will be fed food in pools in each cage as a learning exercise.
“We’ll bring them in, teach them how to eat fish, get them fattened up, and get them out,” Remski said.
Reyes, former executive director of the center, just left the job to move to Florida with her husband when she was recalled to get the new facility up and running as fast as possible. She found contractors, got quotes and oversaw construction, finishing the new rehab center in only three weeks to the day.
The shelter cost $100,000 to build, with half coming from the Waitt Foundation, another quarter from other nonprofits and another quarter from the general public.
The center recently held three classes to train 75 to 80 volunteers in marine mammal rehabilitation.
“We have a lot of good volunteers to choose from, and good coverage scheduled throughout the week,” Hall said.
Although the facility has been built as a temporary structure for the crisis, Reyes said the plan is to keep it permanently.
“The intent is not to disassemble it [once the crisis is over], because we want to provide this service to the community,” Reyes said. “Once the crisis is over, we hope to set it up permanently somewhere close by that has a sewer system.”
This story first appeared in The Malibu Times.