There are so many sea lions washing up on local beaches, that lifeguards are forced to keep some of the pups in public restroom stalls while they wait for help. Mammal rescue centers are beyond capacity, and now rescuers are prioritizing the health status of the seals before they come out. Hetty Chang reports from Huntington Beach for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on March 27, 2013.
The record number of sea mammals washing ashore on the Southern California coast has marine biologists baffled, and rescue centers beyond capacity.
As of late March, 948 sea mammals, mostly sea lion pups, have left the water for the beach, according to marine biologist Sarah Wilkin with the Long Beach office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The pace has continued at such an alarming rate that rescuers can hardly keep up.
Now, beach lifeguards are stepping in to secure the animals until rescuers can reach them.
Lifeguards are sheltering the animals in public restrooms to keep them away from curious beach-goers.
"It's going to keep them safe and keep the people, more importantly, safe from the seals," said Chris Egan, a lifeguard at Huntington Beach. "I think by triage, we're alerting them to the seals that need the most help the quickest. They're prioritizing the seals as to what kind of shape they are in before they come out."
Rescue centers nurse the animals back to health, a process that takes approximately two to four months.
Marine biologists are conducting tests to determine exactly why this crisis is happening so early on in the year. They're trying to figure out why the marine mammals affected are often young sea lion pups born last summer.
Researchers are certain, however, that the pups are moving away from the water to find warmth. All of the animals are starving, and therefore lack the body fat necessary to keep them warm in the water.
While it may be tempting to help the animals, lifeguards warn they are dangerous.
"We post these signs, some do's and don'ts with stranded animals, to ensure the safety of everyone at the park," Egan said.
Jeffrey David, chief lifeguard for the state parks system's Orange Coast North Sector, warned would-be rescuers to leave marine mammals alone.
"Everyone's natural instinct to shoo them back into the water is actually counterproductive and contributing to the animals' demise," David said. "If you see a sea animal, it's still a wild animal. They're protected by state and federal law. Just leave them be."