Ignoring the guttural cackle of more than 20 hungry mouths, the two volunteers carefully dosed Tunamelt, an 80-pound northern elephant seal, with electrolytes. Found near Trinidad, Tunamelt came into the center on Sunday. Despite having a tube shoved down his throat, the northern elephant seal didn’t put up a fight, which isn’t a good sign.
An elephant seal is given electrolytes through a tube Monday afternoon at the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
“We like ’em when they’re bitey and aggressive,” Jessi Weldon said.
It’s been nearly a month since Northcoast Marine Mammal Center volunteers bid farewell to one of their animals, but an influx of starving elephant seals hasn’t slowed. In April, when Coolio the blind elephant seal left for the Pittsburgh Zoo, volunteers were caring for 15 other elephant seals, according to Dr. Dennis Wood, the center’s founder and director.
On Monday, Garcia and Weldon prepared enough Pacific herring to feed 24 animals. Nineteen of them are elephant seals.
“The morning shift lasts about five hours,” Marlana Garcia said. “The regular feeds last about two.”
The publicity that Coolio drummed up also meant an increase in donations, most of it going to more fish, Wood said. He had hoped to be able to stretch the recent shipment of fish since the 500-pound Coolio left, but the center already needs another ton to keep up with its influx of patients, he said.
The Northcoast Marine Mammal Center can also use more volunteers, Wood said. Most of the center’s patients are able to eat fish on their own now, but a few do require individual attention. Meanwhile, the patients continue to come in, he said.
“We’ve got two sea lions that came in
Elephant seal pups nurse on some of the richest milk in the animal kingdom for about a month, growing from 75 pounds to 200–300 pounds, according to Wood. After it has weaned, the pup will use its fat stores to sustain itself as it learns to swim and hunt, but if there isn’t a food source, the seal could become severely weakened.
Malnourished elephant seal pups have been brought into rehabilitation centers up and down the California coast, Wood said. The Northcoast Marine Mammal Center began seeing its first round of patients in March, but the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito has been slammed.
“They have a larger rookery with a lot more animals. They’re also being hit by starving weaned California sea lions,” he said. “Their intake for the year is up around 400, approaching 500, animals.”
Last month, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito had 87 northern elephant seals, 76 California sea lions, 19 harbor seals and one Guadalupe fur seal in its care, according to a press release.
The Sausalito facility began seeing its influx of elephant seal patients sooner than the Crescent City facility, Wood said. Two animals that the Sausalito facility released were later found malnourished at Big Lagoon and Dry Lagoon in Humboldt County. They are currently at the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center.
“They obviously weren’t successful at fishing,” Wood said, adding that he thinks food has been scarce. “So far we’re having pretty good success with them.”
Even though the center recently admitted Tunamelt, it is preparing to send five others off into the wild, Garcia said.
“We try to release them between 130–150 pounds,” she said, speculating that they will be released in about two weeks. “Five of them are just about there.”
The Northcoast Marine Mammal Center accepts donations via its website, www.northcoastmmc.org. People can also bring donations into the center’s gift shop at 424 Howe Drive in Beachfront Park.