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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

SAN JOAQUIN RIVER NWR: Wayward Sea Lion Returns to the Pacific Ocean

Region 8, May 20, 2014
Hoppie (middle) and his mates after release from their carriers check out their new surroundings on the beach at Point Reyes National Seashore.
Hoppie (middle) and his mates after release from their carriers check out their new surroundings on the beach at Point Reyes National Seashore. - Photo Credit: n/a
Hoppie (left) and partner venture into the ocean upon their release at Point Reyes National Seashore.
Hoppie (left) and partner venture into the ocean upon their release at Point Reyes National Seashore. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Madeline Yancey

Hoppie, the wandering California sea lion who literally found himself up a creek, or a river – the San Joaquin River that is – was returned to the Pacific Ocean on May 6, along with two other juvenile male sea lions that had been rescued from life-threatening circumstances.

Hoppie’s return to his natural home took place just five weeks after he was rescued from an almond orchard adjacent to the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, west of Modesto in Stanislaus County about 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The veterinarian who directed Hoppie’s care and recovery while at the Marine Mammal Center (MMC) in Sausalito, California, said it was estimated the sea lion was on his odyssey approximately two weeks. He said that’s about how long it takes for a marine mammal like Hoppie to start exhibiting some of the signs and symptoms that appear after long exposure to fresh water. When rescued, the sea lion was suffering from alopecia or hair loss and was covered with mites. Furthermore, the veterinarian said Hoppie was a lucky sea lion indeed – another two or three days and he would have perished, succumbing to malnutrition combined with stress.

Staff with the MMC estimate Hoppie is about nine months old. It is known that virtually all California sea lions are born between mid-May and mid-June each year so, they are all assigned a birthday of June 15, much the same as all thoroughbred horses are given birthdays of January 1. When asked why such a young sea lion would embark on a trip of that nature, the veterinarian responded that “maternal abandonment” was likely the cause. When conditions are such that predators, like sea lions, can’t find enough food to support their young and themselves, they will often leave the pups to fend for themselves. Depending on the species, young animals depend on their parents to teach them what to eat and where to find it. Driven by the instinct to survive, but lacking a parent to guide him, Hoppie likely took off trying to find food wherever he could.

MMC volunteers who were responsible for feeding Hoppie while at the Center, said the sea lion entered their care weighing about 36 pounds – a full 30 to 35 percent less than what a male sea lion his age should weigh. On the morning of his release Hoppie had gained 20 pounds. One volunteer said they observe behaviors of their new “patients” to help determine what’s really going on with them. One such behavior is feeding – are the animals willing and able to aggressively compete with their “pool mates” for their share of fish? According to the volunteers, from the moment he arrived Hoppie had no problem catching his share of the fish, as evidenced by his weight gain and sleek appearance on the day of his release.

Thanks to observant and caring citizens of Stanislaus County, the diverse team of wildlife conservation professionals at the San Joaquin River NWR and the Marine Mammal Center, and the invaluable wildlife care volunteers, Hoppie’s story has a happy ending. This wayward sea lion gets another chance to be part of a healthy population of California sea lions along the coast of the Golden State.

Madeline Yancey is a Park Ranger (Visitor Services) at the San Luis NWR Complex.

 

Contact Info: Jack Sparks, 209-826-3508, jack_sparks@fws.gov