Cindy Belkowiche has spent hundreds of hours caring for sick and injured marine mammals, watching as they grow strong enough to go back to the wild.
Recently, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center volunteer went scuba diving at Treasure Island Beach.
Before heading in, she saw some harbor seals pop their heads out of the water and wondered what were the chances she’d encounter one she knew.
“We got into the water, I had my camera with me, and two swam right by us,” she said. “As I started to film, I noticed the one behind had on an orange tag; I freaked out because it’s likely that I might know who it is.”
On land, she studied the video and recognized the tag as one given by the center. With a call, she confirmed the harbor seal was Jelly, a former rescue.
“I had to tell everyone our buddy is doing great,” the Mission Viejo resident said. “He found a friend and is living life!”
For Belkowiche and others at PMMC, the sighting is confirmation their efforts rescuing, rehabilitating and studying marine mammals along 53 miles of the Orange County coastline are working.
The Laguna Beach-based center has rescued more than 10,000 marine mammals, including dolphins and sea turtles and even helped disentangle whales, since its founding in 1971. Recently, PMMC hired noted marine mammal expert Hendrik Nollens, who is expanding the center to become a hub for marine mammal health and research in Southern California.
Jelly was sent to PMMC in late April after he was found struggling on the sand in Huntington Beach. He was malnourished, dehydrated and had wounds on his flipper and muzzle. The then 36-pound pup fattened up and grew to a robust 94 pounds.
On Sept. 11, he was released went back to the ocean at Irvine Cove. The private beach is a haul-out for harbor seals.
“It was so heartwarming, especially to see he found a friend,” said Krysta Higuchi, spokeswoman for the center. “It shows all our hard work paid off.”
Jelly is among eight harbor seals rescued by PMMC this year. Most of the animals taken in are young pups born on the Channel Island rookeries during the previous summer. Of the eight, all but one were released. Rainbow, a harbor seal rescued in Newport Harbor, had severe wounds from a shark bite and couldn’t be saved.
PMMC also rescued 79 sea lions and 20 elephant seals. In total, the center’s rescue teams responded to 126 calls about stranded animals, including for some already dead or near death. Five of those were sea turtles, including an olive ridley. There were also 10 dolphins, a Guadelupe fur seal, and a gray whale found at Poche Beach.
Just as the 2020 season is winding down, the center took in its first pup born this summer on Sept. 28. Named Julius, the skinny guy with saggy skin, was found in the sand near the Santa Ana River jetty.
Center officials say the number of rescues this year represents an average year. Still, they worry what Julius’ appearance might mean for the coming season.
“It’s not a good omen for us,” said Dr. Alissa Deming, PMMC’s veterinarian. “Usually when they come in, it’s later in the year.”
For comparison, last year’s first new pup of the season was found on Nov. 10, and in 2018, the first sea lion pup was admitted on Nov. 17.
“Typically, they nurse from six to nine months before they are weaned,” Deming said. “If they’re born in July, we don’t expect them until December or January.”
In the case of Julius, Deming said the pup might be an outlier; something may have happened to his mother. His condition is still termed as “guarded.”
Rescues at PMMC this year were down from recent years – though there were some unusual events between 2013 and 2016 which brought hundreds of starving and sick sea lions to the California coastline. Could the beach closures ordered during the coronavirus pandemic have played a role?
“We don’t know how much of impact that made,” Higuchi said, adding there was also a reduction in staff due to COVID restrictions and social distancing requirements. Still, the lifeguards were patrol on all of Orange County’s beaches and would likely have called in strandings.
Interesting facts this year from PMMC’s efforts included a high number of dolphin and sea turtle deaths. Recently, an olive ridley turtle was found dead at Crystal Cove State Beach, likely having been hit by a boat. Some animals had been severely entangled in ropes and lines and cancer was found in some sea lions.
“We’re still working on what happened with the dolphins and turtles,” said Deming, who specializes in cancer in marine mammals and worked for the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito before joining PMMC.
Samples collected from the animals have been sent to a pathologist, she said. “That gives an idea of what caused the death and directs additional testing. We are also checking for harmful algae blooms and infectious diseases.”
Statewide other marine mammal centers also reported few animals stranded. The Marine Mammal Center Los Angeles so far this year has admitted 160 animals.
“We had more adult animals than usual and 20 animals were bitten by sharks, that is a record for us in nine months,” said Dr. Lauren Palmer, the center’s veterinarian. MMCLA also had several cancer patients, some entanglements and a few gunshot patients.
And, like PMMC, the Los Angeles center has also taken in some early season pups.
“I’m hoping for another year with a low caseload,” Palmer said.
At SeaWorld San Diego, officials reported a similar number of strandings when compared to past years. This year they rescued 75 sea lions, 22 harbor seals, 13 elephant seals, two Guadalupe fur seals and four sea turtles.
SeaWorld has also taken in early season sea lion pups born this year.
And, like the others, veterinarians and rescue staff have also seen an assortment of causes for strandings.
“Several things stood out this year,” said Eric Otjen, zoological operations curator. “We saw an increase in the number of animals that we rescued due to shark bites, with several needing surgeries and intensive wound management. We also saw an increase in the number of stranded harbor seal pups, and an increase in the number of stranded local green sea turtles, and a couple of cold-stunned olive ridley turtles that were transported to us for long-term rehabilitation and eventual return to the ocean.”
SeaWorld is unique in that an established sea lion rookery exists in nearby La Jolla Cove. Some calls have been in response to pups born there. Researchers such as PMMC’s Nollens are asking whether early strandings such as Julius might be coming from that rookery and what that could me for San Diego and OC beaches going forward.
In Northern California, Marine Mammal Center Sausalito also reported fewer animals this year. A final count is in the process.
While the various centers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials wait to see what 2021 will bring, they celebrate this year’s successes. Researchers are presently out studying the pups on the Channel Island rookeries. Typically, this would have deen done earlier this summer but the coronavirus pandemic stalled trips.
And Belkowiche is still is emotional about her encounter.
“I remember him when he came in with his buddy, Tadpole,” she said of Jelly. “A month before his release, he had a health hiccup, and we had to pay more attention to him. It was a lot of work, but in the best way. I’m very sentimental and I’d like to say that he remembered me.”
“We only get a small window into their lives and often we see them at their worst,” she Belkowiche. “To see an animal after he was released, it was absolutely beautiful to see the full-circle transformation.”
Source: Orange County Register