White shark prey-sea lions to humans?

This sea lion, between one and two years old, dragged itself ashore in Malibu after it was either attacked by a shark or injured by a boat propeller. Photo by Ben Marcus / TMT

California Wildlife Center rescues a sea lion they think might have been attacked by a shark.

By Ben Marcus / Special to The Malibu Times

Two days after Vic Calandra and Joey Everett tussled with a 12-foot great white shark off Corral Canyon Beach, a small marine mammal hauled itself out of the water and onto the sun-heated rocks near a private Malibu surf spot. The animal used almost all of its energy to go high and dry; there were people all around and a couple of dogs, and the sun was beating down, but that was apparently safer than whatever the animal encountered at sea.

The animal, which had a large gash on its lower body, near its tail, was flopping painfully across the rocks. The California Wildlife Center was called and until rescuers arrived, the sea lion was watched over, but not touched. About an hour later, Cynthia Reyes, Aaron Frank and Gregg Feingold from the CWC arrived and, seeing that the sea lion was in bad shape, quickly retrieved a net and cage. The animal didn’t have much fight, so it went easily into the cage. It was transported to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro.

The CWC rescuers thought the animal had either been attacked by a shark or hit by the propeller of a boat. A shark bite was not out of the question though, because marine mammals are part of the regular diet of great whites, which, as evidenced by Malibu resident Vic Calandra’s encounter on July 22, are found in Malibu’s ocean waters.

Ralph Collier is the founder of the Shark Research Committee and the author of the book “Shark Attacks of the 20th Century, From the Pacific Coast of North America.” Collier investigates and keeps detailed records on every shark incident from Mexico to Canada, and knows a great deal about shark activity in local waters. “White Sharks are pupped in Southern California waters from Point Conception south to Mexico, which includes Santa Monica Bay,” Collier said. “The pregnant mothers come close to shore within the bay to give birth because they like the water temperature and there is an easy food source. We know that adult white sharks are observed at the Channel Islands but they are also seen along the coast close inshore from Mexico to Canada during this spring birthing period.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s White Shark Research Project has been overseeing its project off the coast of Malibu for the past seven years, where they keep a four million gallon pen during the summer months. Young white sharks are caught and tagged, and then released in order to study the sharks’ behavior. Often, fishermen who mistakenly catch sharks will hand them over to researchers, and other times the researchers will catch the young sharks with hook and line.

Dating back to 50 million years or so, the white shark is one of world’s largest predatory fish, according to the research project. White sharks are born about two to five feet long, and can grow as big as 22 feet in length and weigh more than two tons. The pups swim away immediately after birth (Collier said this is because white sharks will eat their own). At the top of the ocean’s food chain, its only predator are humans. The young white sharks’ main food sources, researchers believe, are fish, rays and other sharks. Adults eat sea lions and seals, small toothed whales, sea otters and sea turtles. They also eat dead animals found floating in the water. They can sense prey by detecting the faint electrical fields coming from their bodies, and can sense minute amounts of blood in the water. A fast animal, white sharks can swim up to 25 mph, and have been observed leaping out of the water in pursuit of their prey.

Although the movie “Jaws” has instilled a cold fear into many who might venture into ocean waters, the shark research project team says that the “statistics on sharks caught commercially show that sharks have more to fear from people than people have to fear from sharks.” The White Shark Research Project’s Web site states that “fewer than 30 people per year are attacked by sharks of all species, worldwide.”

“To even the score, sharks would have to ‘catch’ 4.5 million people per year.”

Three days after the sea lion hauled itself out of the ocean in Malibu, a visit was made to the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur, a clean and well-lighted facility located within sight of the ocean in San Pedro. The center opened in 1992 and operates on land owned by the LAUSD with assistance from Harcourt Brace (which ran Marine Land until it closed in 1987). Operations Director David Bard took visitors on a tour of the surgery room, the treatment room with scales, X-ray and ultra-sound machines, the gift shop and the food prep room for the constant feeding of the animals. There was a cooler stocked with hundreds of pounds of herring and sardines, and Bard showed a recipe for the high-protein gruel for animals that aren’t ready for fish.

There were several dozen animals in pens segregated by species: seals, harbor seals, elephant seals and sea lions. The animal that had dragged itself ashore in Malibu was a sea lion between one and two years old, and it was still alive. It was in a pen with a couple of other sea lions that all looked a little worse for wear and tear. Two of the sea lions were segregated from the rest, as they had “seal pox” and were covered in lesions. The sea lion that was rescued was doing better than that; it was lying in the sun, wearing a bandage. However, there were no plans to release the animal soon; it was listless and the volunteers said they weren’t sure it would live.

The Marine Mammal Care Center is the only federally authorized hospital for sick, injured and orphaned marine mammals in Los Angeles County, but it does not receive federal funding. There are two permanent employees, two grant-funded staff and 70 volunteers who work seven days a week to keep the animals fed and their pens clean. The facility is staffed mostly by volunteers and funded by private donations, but they are already at capacity and need more room. The center also needs more volunteers and has a constant need for continued funding.

“We’re also looking to extend our grant-funded veterinary position,” Bard said. “And we’re always looking for new volunteers. The next orientation dates are Aug. 26 & 27.”

More information about the Marine Mammal Care Center can be found online at www.marinemammalcare.org.

The California Wildlife Center is the only licensed facility to provide full-term rehabilitative care to injured and sick native wildlife in Los Angeles, Southern Ventura and Orange counties, as well as providing marine mammal emergency response for the Malibu coastline. The nonprofit agency also relies on volunteers and donations in order to continue operations. The CWC is having its annual fundraiser on Aug. 19 at the Gull’s Way Estate in Malibu. Called “Wing Ding,” the event will feature live music, a buffet, a raffle and children’s activities. Tickets are $100 for adults, $40 for children under 12. More information can be obtained by calling 818.222.2658 or online at www.californiawildlifecenter.org. To report stranded wildlife, call 310.458.WILD.