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GUY RAZ, host:

Another mysterious scientific phenomenon, this time on the other side of the country, has researchers up and down the Pacific coast scratching their heads.

Here, along the white-sand beaches of Orange County in Southern California, dozens of baby sea lions and harbor seals have washed up in recent months, most of them barely alive and all of them severely malnourished, and scientists here believe it's related to the El Nino weather pattern all along the Pacific.

(Soundbite of sea lions)

RAZ: About two miles from Laguna Beach, researchers at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center are trying to keep these seal and sea lion pups alive. Dr. Richard Evans is the medical director.

Dr. RICHARD EVANS (Medical Director, Pacific Marine Mammal Center): They're in what we call the third stage of starvation, and that's we stage starvation in humans and animals: one, two, three. Three is when you've gone so bad that you start digesting your muscle as a source of protein.

RAZ: In a normal year, the rescued sea lions that end up at the center are adults, not pups, but this season, almost all of the animals that have arrived here are babies. The El Nino has brought warmer water temperatures to the Pacific along the North American coast, and as a result, the food that these sea lions and seals eat sardines and squid are moving to cooler parts of the ocean.

The adult sea lions are following the food and leaving their pups behind, and the result has been what amounts to a famine for the animals.

Dr. EVANS: We have ruled out disease as a problem. You know, these animals are healthy otherwise. So depending on which stage of the game you're in, they're either not getting enough mother's milk because mother has terminated suckling and left, or they're weaned, even force-weaned, and they just can't seem to get enough food to eat to maintain their body weight and grow. Either one of those translate back to problems with enough food for mama and her pups.

RAZ: In other words, enough fish in the sea for them to eat.

Dr. EVANS: Yeah.

RAZ: This afternoon, about 15 seals and sea lions are in various stages of recovery. About 80 percent of the animals who arrive here are usually saved. This year, because so many are washing up so severely malnourished, the center says about half of the animals won't make it.

Michelle Hunter, the director of operations here, leads me to a pen, where a small, black, harbor seal pup is fighting for his life. When this seal arrived, he weighed 30 pounds. That's 60 pounds lighter than he should've been. He was searching for food in vain.

Ms. MICHELLE HUNTER (Director of Operations, Pacific Marine Mammal Center): And we found a lot of plastic and kelp and stuff. He had vomited a few times.

RAZ: So what's his condition now?

Ms. HUNTER: His condition, I would say, is guarded. We are tube-feeding him four times a day and also giving him subcutaneous fluids to rehydrate him as well, because his stomach can only hold so much formula, and we really need to get the nutrition in him, as well as the fluids for him to be able to make it.

RAZ: But this is an infant, basically.

Ms. HUNTER: Yes, it is.

RAZ: And the chances that he'll make it?

Ms. HUNTER: He's got a good chance. He's got a really nasty attitude, which is good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HUNTER: You walk in there, and he'll (unintelligible) at you and try to lunge at you as well. So that's a good temperament to have as a harbor seal.

RAZ: He's so cute.

Ms. HUNTER: He's very cute. Looks are deceiving, very deceiving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Deceiving because these animals are aggressive, and Kirsten Sedlick, the animal care supervisor here, keeps her distance.

Ms. KIRSTEN SEDLICK (Animal Care Supervisor, Pacific Marine Mammal Center): They've got about 10 times the biting power of a pit bull, and they won't let go.

RAZ: Wow.

Ms. SEDLICK: Very

RAZ: You don't want to be petting them.

Ms. SEDLICK: No.

RAZ: As tempting as (unintelligible).

Ms. SEDLICK: I know, absolutely.

RAZ: In the condition these animals now arrive, it can take up to six months to rehabilitate them. The researchers here need to feed them slowly, sometimes, starting with a liquid diet, a smoothie for seals, says Sedlick.

Ms. SEDLICK: And what this one has in it, it's just water, some Karo Syrup, vitamins, some medications and fish and that, a little small amount of fish. (Unintelligible) Saturday, and we're just, like I said, trying to boost him up a little bit fully, but (unintelligible).

RAZ: And for the animals who are too weak to eat, Sedlick sometimes has to force-feed them.

Ms. SEDLICK: This is a really good sign. What we're seeing here is he's fighting right now, where earlier today, he wasn't really fighting the tube-feeding that much. So this is a good improvement in his behavior right here.

RAZ: But while this sea lion may make it, Richard Evans, the director, says it's still a crap shoot.

Dr. EVANS: What we can do is try to feed them at the place they are right now and try to force their whole metabolic process over to where we want it. Sometimes, we do that. Sometimes, we don't. Sometimes, we never have the chance because things don't work that way, you know, in a day or two, they're gone.

RAZ: The sea lions that they are able to nurse back to health are brought out of their pens and into pools of water. Volunteers throw them fresh pieces of squid.

Michelle Hunter says the stress of trying to save an animal's life can sometimes be overwhelming.

Ms. HUNTER: You just need to be focused on the task at hand, just like when you work in a hospital. You just need to be able to focus on that animal, not let your emotions get in the way and just concentrate on what you're doing to be able to try to save the animal. Cry later at home if you have to.

RAZ: Richard Evans says the El Nino weather pattern will last another month or two, and hopefully, the fish and squid that the sea lions count on will return, ending the famine.

You can see photographs of the sea lion pups at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center at our Web site, npr.org.

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