Two Newport Beach Public Works staffers were checking beaches around the Newport Pier recently when a surfer notified them about what appeared to be an injured marine mammal lying on the sand about 80 feet from the ocean.
As Mike Auger and Jimmy Villa drove closer in their truck, they saw a small, furry, dark heap lying crumpled on the beach.
“It looked in real bad shape and had labored breathing,” said Auger, a beach maintenance supervisor for the city.
First thinking the animal was a sea lion, Auger recognized the face didn’t have the usual longer muzzle of a sea lion. The animal had a thick, plush fur coat.
“The face looked different, almost like a koala face,” Auger said. “It was like nothing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been here 17 years.”
Auger and Villa, who unfortunately mostly only find dead animals on the beach, called the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. They know the center is looking into challenges marine mammals have been having and appreciated being notified of any animals found – dead or alive.
They were asked to cover the animal with something to keep it warm – they used a safety vest – and place it in their truck until a rescue team could arrive.
“They really saved her life,” Dr. Alissa Deming, the center’s veterinarian, said. “It was their rapid action that made a difference for the animal.”
The marine mammal was identified as a Northern fur seal, which are rarely seen this far south.
On Thursday, Nov. 3, the pup, named Sweet P by center volunteers, had her first foray into PMMC’s big pool.
“She was swimming around like a ballerina and primping,” Deming said. “She’s definitely on the mend, and she’s a fan favorite already.”
Fur seals are known to be meticulous groomers, Deming said, and Sweet P was already making sure her coat was fluffed and perfectly in place.
The young pup, likely born on San Miguel Island about four or five months ago, is a rare treat for the rescue center. Even visitors to PMMC’s public yard over the past few days have noticed the animal is unique, and PMMC docents are using the opportunity to educate visitors about the species. The center typically rescues sea lions and harbor and elephant seals.
Typically, Northern fur seals – their southern cousins are the endangered Guadalupe fur seals – head north after they wean from their mothers at 5 months or 6 months. They’re often found in the cold waters off Alaska and even Russia. Unlike sea lions, which swim closer to the coast and eat prey found near the surface, these fur seals hunt for squid in the deep ocean waters far offshore.
“You don’t see them often,” Deming said. “Fishermen far out at sea will see them, and they can stay out for weeks hunting for squid. Sometimes they’re seen napping at the water’s surface where they fall asleep.”
In just the few days Sweet P has been at the center, Deming said she is making steady steps and getting stronger. When she was found, she weighed 11 pounds; she’s already gaining weight and eating bits of squid.
She’ll stay at PMMC for about three to four months and then will be released to the wild again to make her way up north.
It’s been awhile since PMMC rescued a Northern fur seal. The last one was in November 2017 when the center’s staff found Heartbreaker, also a young female pup.
Northern fur seals wean more quickly from their mothers than sea lions do, Deming said, which is why November is typically the time of year when they’ve been found.
Deming said there’s a chance Sweet P’s mother may have been impacted by a toxic algae bloom that occurred off Santa Barbara and near the Channel Islands in late August and early September.
The blooms sickened hundreds of sea lions, also born on the Channel Islands, and had the region’s rescue teams scrambling for weeks. PMMC teams helped out and Deming took tissue samples from the dead adult sea lions to learn more about the mysterious bloom that occurred much later in the season than usual.
Whatever reason she came so far south, Deming said, “It’s exciting for us all to see something different than the norm.”
Auger said he planned a special visit to PMMC to show Sweet P to his children.
“They thought it was really cool and called me a ‘hero,’” he said. “It was rewarding for Jimmy and me to save a life, especially an animal that is so rare on our beaches.”