On an Abbott Oceanarium visit, you might see California sea lions Laguna, Cruz and Ty zooming around Grainger Sea Lion Cove or, as above, piled up for a nap. Other times Biff, who rounds out our quartet of rescued sea lions, has the pool. Even when you can’t see them, you can hear these aquatic predators throughout the Pacific Northwest exhibit when they start vocalizing—and living up to their common name. These guys get along great, but they’d get testy if there were a female to trigger their territoriality, so Shedd’s colony of sea lions remains all male.
If you’ve seen an aquatic presentation in the last eight years, chances are you’ve seen Ty, as everyone at Shedd calls him. Born at SeaWorld in San Diego in 2001, he was part of the U.S. Navy’s marine mammal program until 2005, when he lost vision in one eye due to a cataract. In need of a new home, he was welcomed by Shedd. At a little over 500 pounds, Ty is the second-largest of our sea lions. For all their bulk, under water sea lions are fast and stealthy, and if you watch closely during an aquatic presentation, Ty’s hydrodynamic form zooms into Whale Harbor from an adjoining pool on the right. One of his favorite enrichments is a twist on the familiar Jell-O mold salad: unflavored gelatin, either plain or with fish in it. It’s a combination chewy toy and treat, and it’s a good source of water for him.
In 2004, Biff was among a group of wild sea lions who had found an easy meal of Chinook salmon along the fish ladders of the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. It was a case of federally protected marine mammals eating federally protected endangered fish. To monitor the incidence of predation on the salmon population, wildlife biologists and veterinarians permanently marked the sea lions with numbers large enough to see from a distance. The procedure was done under anesthesia, and the animals were given a full medical exam as part of the process. (You can still see “C700” on Biff’s back.)
But by 2009, Biff’s number was almost up. As an identified “nuisance animal,” Biff, along with a number of other sea lions, had been relocated by wildlife biologists. But they couldn’t stay away from the protected seafood buffet. As a last resort, the sea lions were slated for permanent removal. That’s usually a death sentence, but the federal government and the marine mammal community collaborated to find Biff and the others new homes at zoos and aquariums. It was a triple win: The salmon were safer, the sea lions were saved, and Shedd welcomed a magnificent marine mammal—all 700 or so pounds of him—to a newly renovated sea lion habitat in the Oceanarium.
When Cruz was about a year old and living in the waters off Santa Cruz, California, someone shot him—an illegal but not uncommon practice on the West Coast, where the numerous marine mammals are perceived as competitors by some commercial fishermen. The pup was found washed up on a beach, with gunshot wounds in his face and eyes. His life was saved at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, but the now totally blind pup needed a permanent home where he could receive lifelong care. Shedd was the perfect match, with the facilities, expert trainers and sea lion buddies for the youngster.
Using his whiskers and keen directional hearing, Cruz quickly learned his way around the sea lion areas, apparently mapping the topography in his head. Just as the pup adapted to his new surroundings, his trainers adapted their methods to work with a sightless animal. Instead of hand signals and other visual cues, they rely entirely on audible and tactile cues: a training whistle, a rattle target, a gentle touch and, of course, words. Cruz’s lack of vision hasn’t slowed him down, and the 6½-year-old interacts and holds his own with the other sea lions. He also takes part in one of the aquatic presentations each day.
Rescued and rehabilitated animals get a second chance at life. Laguna was lucky enough to get a third. On Jan. 9, 2013, he was found stranded and malnourished on Laguna Beach on the California coast. He was in the first wave of more than 1,400 starving sea lion pups that overwhelmed California rescue centers that year in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) called an unusual mortality event, or UME. Many pups died. But after intensive care, Laguna was healthy enough to be released March 21 with a bright orange flipper ID tag. Six weeks later, however, he had stranded again.
Because of the flipper tag, rescuers could see that the emaciated pup been rescued before, access his medical history and make the determination that he most likely would not survive if returned to the ocean again. During the UME, Shedd let the network of California rescue centers know that we could provide a home to a young male sea lion if one could not be released. Once Laguna had gone through rehabilitation again, he was on a jet bound for Chicago (see his arrival photo above). Despite a difficult start in life, Laguna is healthy, a quick learner and a mischievous playmate for Cruz.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor
Read more about our rescue work with California sea lions and other animals: Rescued, Rehabilitated, Released, Rehomed: Stories of the Animal Response Team