Rescued sea lions arrive at Georgia Aquarium

The sea lion pup was just a 22-pound bag of bones when he washed ashore last year near Laguna Beach, Calif.

Experts at the nearby Pacific Marine Mammal Center helped the orphan rehydrate, pulled fishhooks out of his flippers, treated him for infection and disease, fed him up and then sent him back to the ocean.

Unfortunately he wouldn’t stay away. The little guy stranded again, this time farther north near Sausalito. Rescued again, and stranded a third time, he was deemed unreleasable. That’s how he ended up at the Georgia Aquarium.

His keepers don’t have a name for the 2-year-old sea lion, but a few of them are calling him “Jabba,” in reference to his now-portly silhouette.

“He weighs 111 pounds,” said Dennis Christen, senior director of zoological operations at the Georgia Aquarium. “He’s about as wide as he is long. They were in a ‘fatten-him-up’ mode, and he took advantage of every calorie.”

“Jabba” and a 1-year-old fellow strandee, also rescued off the California coast, are the newest residents at the Georgia Aquarium, and will be housed in a new sea lion gallery to open next spring. The gallery will display the West Coast orphans and will also welcome back sea lions who lived at the aquarium from its opening in 2005 until 2010, when they were loaned out to make room for a dolphin habitat expansion.

Since January, more than 3,000 sea lion pups have washed up on the beaches in California, most of them dehydrated and emaciated. The extraordinary number of strandings began a few years ago. Marine biologists say warming waters near the coast may have pushed sardines and other prey species to cooler water farther out, so that nursing females must travel farther for their meals. As a result, sea lion pups are being abandoned or weaned too early, and are wandering off on their own and starving to death.

Earlier this year, the Georgia Aquarium sent four staffers to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., to help care for the rescued pups, and to return good candidates to the ocean.

But some are unable to survive on their own. Jabba’s new buddy, a 1-year-old, weighed 33 pounds when he was stranded in March of this year. The desperately hungry sea lion was approaching humans on the beach, seeking food, a potentially dangerous situation. “This was an animal that was starving to death, and was looking for any opportunity,” Christen said.

Pups deemed unreleasable by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association/Fisheries must find a new home in human care. Christen said that the Georgia Aquarium is “proud to be part of this effort to help and provide a caring home to these two sea lions.”

The 1-year-old now weighs 96 pounds.

The two sea lions flew to Atlanta from California on Aug. 13, traveling in specially designed kennels on a FedEx plane, while Christen and associate veterinarian Dr. Alexa McDermott rode alongside, misting them regularly with a pump sprayer. They were recently introduced to each other and can be seen curled up together when they sleep. The sea lion pups will remain in quarantine for 30 to 60 days until the aquarium is sure they’re healthy.

The Georgia Aquarium currently has three harbor seals on display alongside the beluga whales in its Cold Water Gallery. Sea lions differ from harbor seals in their coloration (they range from chocolate brown to tan, while harbor seals are gray and black) and in their means of locomotion (they use their front flippers to propel themselves through the water while harbor seals use their hind flippers in a fishlike motion).

Sea lions, in particular, are very clever, and can be trained to step onto a scale or present a flipper for a medical examination. Of the younger sea lion, Christen said, “he’s a pretty mellow little dude. He’s not too bothered by things. He’s very curious and will walk right up to you and check you out.”

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