A female sea lion sickened from the apparent effects of toxic algae blooms off the coast was rescued Wednesday, May 16th, after getting disoriented and traveling miles into Ballona Creek.
The 175-pound sea lion, which may have been lost in Ballona Creek for up to a week, was rescued from the creek’s flood-control channel near the Marina Freeway (State Route 90) by marine mammal expert and Whale Rescue Team founder Peter Wallerstein.
Wallerstein transported the three-year-old sea lion to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro for treatment, but center officials said it was still too early to tell if she would recover.
“Right now the prognosis is kind of guarded,” said David Bard, Marine Mammal Care Center director of operations.
“It’s getting supportive fluids but it’s not yet eating on its own.”
The sick marine mammal, which is being treated in the facility’s dry area, appears to be suffering from the effects of domoic acid, a toxin that breeds in algae blooms, Bard said. Wallerstein has helped rescue dozens of marine animals in recent months that are believed to have ingested domoic acid and become sick.
The sea lion rescued from Ballona Creek may have been the same one that was spotted in the channel a week before it was captured. A man walking on the bicycle path along the creek saw the animal Wednesday evening, May 16th, and notified Wallerstein.
When Wallerstein arrived at the scene, he saw the sea lion sitting on the edge near the bottom of the creek’s concrete channel slope.
“She was just looking with her head above water,” Wallerstein said.
Given the amount of water in the channel at the time, the rescuer noted that the sea lion would have had the advantage if he tried to rescue the mammal where it stood.
Wallerstein said he initially wanted to wait until the next morning, when there would be low tide and more dry area to corner the sea lion for rescue.
But the rescuer’s plans quickly changed, as the sea lion got out of the water on its own and began to climb up the channel incline until she made it up near the edge of the bicycle path.
“I just waited patiently,” Wallerstein said.
When the mammal had most of her body on the bike path, Wallerstein made sure to keep the bikers and pedestrians who came to observe the sea lion away, so she wouldn’t get spooked.
He said he then “slowly” approached the sea lion as she looked at him and used a large hoop with a net to catch her. A passerby helped Wallerstein get the sea lion into a cage and onto his truck.
Many marine mammals typically struggle during rescues, but Wallerstein said this sea lion didn’t fight back, a sign that she was most likely sick from domoic acid poisoning.
“This was sad because she didn’t resist at all,” Wallerstein said.
When marine animals ingest the domoic acid toxin they can suffer both physical and neurological effects. In this case, the female sea lion looked rather strong physically but the toxin apparently caused her to become disoriented, Wallerstein said.
“She looked healthy and strong but I knew, mentally, she was suffering,” he said.
The marine mammal’s disorientation as to her whereabouts is most likely what led to her swimming away from the ocean into Ballona Creek and miles up the channel, he said.
“It’s just water to them,” Wallerstein said.
While Wallerstein has had to help rescue dozens of marine mammals that have experienced similar effects from the toxic algae in recent months, he is hopeful that the situation is improving.
“I think we’re on the other side of this crisis,” he said.