Seal Saviors

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Rehabilitated elephant seals touch noses before heading out into the ocean together on Saturday, following weeks of rehabilitation at the Calabasas-based nonprofit California Wildlife Center.

No Color snuffled as volunteers lifted her out of the van. Her liquid eyes took in a scene they hadn’t seen in weeks: the ocean. 

Months earlier, a concerned citizen had called the California Wildlife Center (CWC) to let them know he’d spotted a young, malnourished elephant seal. The Calabasas-based nonprofit headed out, picked the seal up using a combination of nets and boards, loaded her into a kennel big enough for a large dog and took her back to the center. There, she underwent treatment alongside several other pups that had been reported on beaches from Topanga to Ventura County Line. That’s the center’s territory, Heather Henderson, the CWC’s marine program manager, explained. This year, the center was nursing 24 pups, each approximately five months old. All had been found malnourished, a few with swollen muscles—reactions to eating red crab—and some parasites and minor injuries, Henderson said.

Elephant seals are born at a breeding colony (the best known one nearby is at San Simeon), nursed for one month, then abruptly weaned. At that point, the animals can weigh up to 300 pounds; they stay on the beach for a few weeks, metabolizing that baby fat. After their weight drops, the young seals learn to swim and hunt on their own, all by instinct, trial and error. 

But some experience a bit too much error. When a seal drops to 60-85 pounds, it crawls onto the beach. That’s when the CWC swoops in to help.

“We start with hydrating the animal and giving it supplements … slowly moving them into ground-up food, like a fish smoothie,” Henderson said. The seal soon transitions into eating whole fish.

During the season’s peak, Henderson and her volunteers work round the clock. “[The seals] sleep and are silent for three hours. Then, they wake up and scream at the top of their lungs for about an hour at every feed,” she laughed. “Our neighbors are very tolerant of us here.”

Center volunteers refer to the seals by the colored, nontoxic grease marks put on their heads to tell them apart; because No Color was the first seal of the season, she was not given a grease mark for the sake of simplicity. 

“We never give them human names,” Henderson said. “We really want to make sure that our volunteers and staff are not humanizing [the animals] in any way because it does them no favors going out into the wild.” 

When a seal can feed itself well, is in good body condition and is not imprinted on—attached to—humans, the veterinarian performs an exit exam and Henderson looks for some good beach days to take it back out. 

On Saturday, May 30, Heather and a group of volunteers drove No Color and another elephant seal, Pink Yellow, to Nicholas Canyon Beach and carried the pair to the calmest spot on the beach, away from the bigger waves. 

The CWC has been using Nicholas Beach for six seasons, Henderson said. It’s primarily a surfer beach with few beachgoers. 

“This is really important for reintroducing an animal back into the wild, because they may want to sit on the sand and rest and take in this new environment for a few hours. If they can do that without being harassed, that is in their best interest,” Henderson said. 

On the beach, Henderson drew a line in the sand and told a few families, which had gathered to watch the release, what to do if one of the seals came toward them. She directed volunteers on how to use their wooden boards to guide the seals toward the ocean and unlatched the crates. Then, on the count of three, the volunteers opened the gates and No Color and Pink Yellow nosed out. 

“They’re kissing! They love each other!” a few children screamed happily when the two seals sniffed each other and inched toward the waves in tandem. After half an hour, Pink Yellow worked up the courage to leave the shore. “See ya later, buddy—literally!” a surfer quipped. 

That statement wasn’t quite right: “For elephant seal pups, we rarely see them again, which is a good thing,” Henderson said. “They shouldn’t be hanging in north LA County; that’s not normal for them.” Elephant seals spend months in the open ocean, with the females swimming all the way up to Alaska and the males all the way out to Hawaii. 

“That being said, California Sea Lions, which we care for as well, are a coastal species,” Henderson continued. “We do see them again; we call it a resight,” Henderson said. “It’s super exciting … Just to know that they are still out there, thriving, really supports that we did make a difference in their survival.”

No Color lingered on the beach. Eventually, though, she slipped into the sea, her glossy head becoming indistinguishable from a surfer’s in the froth. 

Those who would like to donate to the CWC may visit cawildlife.org/ways-to-support-us/make-a-general-donation. Volunteers are recruited and trained on a need basis. Those interested in volunteering can fill out an application at cawildlife.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer.