My first experience in Marina del Rey was many years ago when I bought a Hobie Cat catamaran and launched it in the rain from the county ramps on Fiji Way.
It was a dreary day, but I didn’t care because I hadn’t been sailing in a long time, since before my relocation to the “left coast.” I hadn’t done a lot of ocean sailing and never had been on the Pacific, but I had a new (used) boat and wouldn’t be denied.
As we tacked out of the marina, we hit the main channel and began reaching. To our surprise, full-grown sea lions were popping their heads out of the water, pausing and looking directly into our eyes. For sure we were naive — we had no idea this area was so full of such large-scale, curious and charismatic residents.
Since then, I’ve come to realize that of all the marine wildlife in the local area, it’s the sea lion that holds the most familiar relationship with Santa Monica Bay boaters. They tread the same courses we do, hunt the same fish (much to the frustration of Southern California fishermen) and occasionally use our boats to grab a nap. And because of this familiarity and a relatively new phenomenon called domoic acid, these next few months can, at times, be heartbreaking.
From March through June, Peter Wallerstein of Marine Animal Rescue is working all hours rescuing mostly sea lions, but some dolphins and birds suffering from domoic acid poisoning — a toxin that begins in algae and makes its way through the food chain, particularly affecting marine mammals.
These wild animals are often seen at beaches, jetties and other public locations in an effort to recuperate from the intense reactions they’re having to domoic, a naturally occurring toxic algae bloom that causes an array of bizarre, uncharacteristic and at times, dangerous behavior.
“I’ve said this over and over, in my 24 years of conducting marine mammal rescues, looking at the face of a sea lion suffering from domoic acid poisoning is by far the most difficult, the most disturbing,” said Wallerstein.
Wallerstein, who tours the shores from Ventura to Long Beach, has been on the front lines of the outbreak every year since its appearance in the late 1990s. Daily he finds himself in situations that are often dicey — attempting to drop a net on large disoriented animals in the throws of domoic induced episodes.
“Affected sea lions exhibit head weaving and bobbing, bulging eyes, mucus from the mouth, disorientation and atax (“drunken”) movements, and seizures are also prevalent,” said a Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute statement on domoic.
“The neurological impacts make it difficult for the animals to stay afloat and breath in the water. In many cases, marine mammals that are affected by domoic acid will beach (haul out of the water) in an effort to rest and survive. In severe cases, permanent brain damage and eventually death are likely to occur.”
While this year’s domoic acid effect isn’t the worst that local rescuers and agencies have ever seen, it’s certainly not getting any better either. There is a wide mix of variables that contribute to how severe and toxic a bloom might be from year to year including ocean temperatures, the amount of nutrients in the water and the yet to be determined anthropogenic effect.
“It’s not our lightest year, but not our heaviest year,” said David Bard, director of the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, where two dozen sea lions are currently being treated.
Bard has watched the domoic situation closely, as it is responsible for often filling his facility with suffering animals. He is vague when asked about the animals’ survivability chances, stating that there are too many varying conditions to answer accurately, and he is also hesitant to draw conclusions or hypothesis as to why domoic is such a growing and continuing dilemma.
Like most scientists, he is uncomfortable speculating or confirming anything that hasn’t been thoroughly tested, and there is no buoyancy in his voice when he speaks of the future as it relates to marine mammals and domoic acid poisoning.
“We’re at the point at the facility where we expect it; it’s typical every year — we know how to respond. But there’s no show-stopping breakthrough that’s going to make this problem go away.”
Both Bard and Wallerstein remind the public that while sea lions and other marine mammals appear approachable, they are indeed wild animals capable of unpredictable and possibly violent behavior — especially an animal in a domoic state.
“We have witnessed people putting their children next to an unconscious animal for a photo opportunity, pouring water on it or even dragging the animals back into the water,” said Wallerstein. “We need people to report (the incident), but stay away.”
In the event of an emergency involving a seabird or marine mammal, call (800) 399-4253 (800) 39-WHALE.