“The majority of animals we worked on were very young,” says Bernadette Maciol, one of Shedd’s senior veterinary technicians. “The elephant seal pups are called ‘weaners’ because they recently weaned.

“But in this case,” she says, recounting eight days of intensive rehabilitation work in California, “biologists believe that they were separated from their mothers too soon, before they had weaned and were able to forage on their own. So they came in emaciated, malnourished and sometimes in need of medical care.”

Throughout April and May, Shedd Aquarium sent a rotation of animal rehabilitation teams to help care for the record number of stranded, starving pups—elephant seals, sea lions, harbor seals and fur seals—admitted to The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.

“We worked with all of them,” says Bernadette, shown above on the left with Shedd animal care specialist Alicia Atkins as they tube feed an elephant seal pup. “Because most of these pups don’t know how to eat fish yet, or haven’t learned to forage or hunt, they’re tube fed a ‘milkshake’ of vitamins and mashed-up fish until they reach what can be considered a normal weight.”

The goal, she says, is to get them on a grown-up diet of whole fish. “Some of them will even have to go to ‘fish school’ at the center to learn how to swim after and catch live fish,” she says.

“Once they start rehabilitation, they tend to grow fast. I saw great results. In a week’s time, animals that were barely able to move were eating and getting around.”

Working 12-hour shifts, Bernadette and Alicia helped wherever they were needed. In addition to rounds of feedings and pen cleanings, they administered IV fluids, gave medications, provided wound care, assisted in surgery, helped with admissions, recorded weights and measurements, and put flipper ID tags on some of the hundreds of animals that have kept the rescue and rehabilitation facility filled to capacity since March. Elephant seals, like the pup above, also got the orange “top hat” IDs (applied with Superglue), which are practical for identifying animals that frequently pop their heads out of the water.

“Every day was different, but we were able to help meet the needs of the staff and the large team of volunteers.”

Poster pup for a crisis
Hoppie, California sea lion pupDuring their stay, Bernadette and Alicia had a chance to work with Hoppie, a California sea lion pup whose story put a national spotlight on the marine mammal crisis happening along California’s coast. On March 31, the pup was found starving and disoriented 100 miles inland in a Modesto almond orchard after apparently swimming up a river in search of food and then getting lost. Happily, a healthy Hoppie was reintroduced to the ocean on May 6.    

“Sea lion pups watch their mothers hunt and learn these skills,” says Bernadette, “but a lot of pups are getting separated from their mothers before they’ve gained the skills they need to survive.”

Most of the pups will be on the road to recovery with good nutrition, medication and “fish school.” But the adult sea lions coming into the center were another matter. Says Bernadette, “A lot of the adult animals we saw were succumbing to domoic acid toxicity.”

Domoic acid is produced by the algae in “red tides,” large, harmful algal blooms fed by waste and fertilizer runoff. It accumulates in the tissues of animals, reaching toxic concentrations as it moves up the food chain from algae-eating fishes to fish-eating marine mammals. "Domoic acid targets the brain and has neurological effects. Animals show up lethargic and disoriented.

“There’s no antidote for it,” she continues. “If center staff can catch it early enough, the animal might be rehabilitated, but in many cases, the adults’ brains are too far deteriorated.”

Sarah van Schagen, The Marine Mammal Center’s story and communications curator, said that the large algal bloom is occurring at the same time that this year’s weaned elephant seal pups are having a hard time thriving and an unusually high number of emaciated young sea lions are stranding along the 600 miles of coast monitored by the center. “We have 167 animals in our Sausalito hospital right now, but that number changes daily.”

So far this year, she says, the center has admitted 543 animals—a record for that time period during its nearly four-decade history. The 340 California sea lions taken in outnumber the total admitted in 2013. To date, 183 animals have fully recovered and been released.

Even with more than 1,000 volunteers who feed the patients and clean the pens, the center welcomed reinforcements. “The Shedd team members jumped right to work as soon as they arrived, serving alongside our volunteer animal care crews. The bulk of their work was assisting the volunteers with feeding, because with 200 animals on site at any given time, that’s a lot of mouths to feed. And then there are a lot of dirty dishes to clean.”

Feed, do dishes, repeat
“There were lots and lots of dishes!” says aquarist Malissa Smith, who worked at the center with Vicky Molino from Shedd’s Marine Mammals department. “We helped the support crews, which come in on four-hour shifts and just do dishes. Everything has to be rinsed, scrubbed and sterilized. We’d get everything cleaned just in time for the next feed.”

Rehabilitation work was a new experience for Malissa. “I don’t work with pinnipeds, I work with jellies, so it was a rare opportunity for those of us in the Fishes department to work with different animal groups. And helping out for such a great cause was really awesome.”

Alicia boards MunchkinMalissa and Vicky helped feed the elephant seal pups—affectionately called “ellies”—at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. “We’d go in as a group because the ellies associate you with being fed when you come in with a tube and boards, and they all swarm you.” The boards are hand-held plywood barriers used to protect animal care staffers during contact with the 125-pound pups, which socialize by mouthing. “They’re all hungry, so they bite on the feeding tube and take all the food down.”

Coming full circle
The work was strenuous, the hours were long, and the plight of the animals was heartbreaking, but the opportunity to help was rewarding. Vet tech Bernadette was buoyed by taking part in the releases at Point Reyes National Seashore, a two-hour drive up the coast, and watching her efforts come full circle as the rescued animals swam off in the ocean.

“Without the facility being there and without the collaborative efforts of everyone,” Bernadette says, “I’m quite certain most of those animals would not have made it. We were happy to be able to help with this intensive rescue effort. It was a lot of hard work, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

Sarah of The Marine Mammal Center says, “Our volunteers needed all the help they could get, so having Shedd’s teams come in with experience, but more than experience, with the passion they have for the animals—they brought that passion right out to the pens and pitched in to help care for the animals.”

Karen Furnweger, web editor