Force, a 2- to 3-month-old elephant seal pup
Force, a 3- to 4-month-old northern elephant seal pup was found on the beach at 26th Ave. in Live Oak. He is being nursed back to health at The Marine Mammal Center.
(Top photo courtesy of Mark Shwartz. Bottom photo courtesy of The Marine Mammal Center)

‘Tis the season for stranded seal pups. Here’s what to do if you see one

Seals and sea lions along the Santa Cruz coast are birthing and raising their pups this time of year. When pups get separated from mom, they often wash up on beaches where humans and their dogs play. Here’s what to do — and what not to do — if you find a marine mammal in distress.

On Tuesday, Mark Shwartz was walking his dog when he spotted a skinny, exhausted animal on the beach in Live Oak. It turned out to be a northern elephant seal, only 3 to 4 months old.

“I thought it was a carcass at first,” Shwartz said. But then the pup started to move, and Shwartz snapped its picture:

The northern elephant seal pup, as he appeared on the Live Oak beach Tuesday.
The northern elephant seal pup, as he appeared on the Live Oak beach Tuesday.
(Courtesy Mark Shwartz)

Less than 24 hours later, the pup had pepped up — after spending the night at The Marine Mammal Center in Moss Landing.

He had also been given a name: “Force.”

The same northern elephant seal pup
The same northern elephant seal pup looks markedly better Wednesday after a night at The Marine Mammal Center in Moss Landing.
(Courtesy of The Marine Mammal Center)

What happened in between is a textbook case of what should happen if a marine mammal washes onto a busy beach. By the time Shwartz met Force, other beachgoers had already called The Marine Mammal Center, which had dispatched several volunteers to determine if the pup needed rescuing.

It’s a common occurrence this time of year, and that’s keeping The Marine Mammal Center, headquartered in Sausalito with branches in Moss Landing and elsewhere, very busy. After a month of nursing, mother seals leave their pups on the beaches on which they birthed them and return to life at sea.

When hunger sets in, the pups begin to venture into the water and teach themselves how to forage for squid and fish. If they get lost, struggle to hunt successfully, or are swept out by king tides or storm surges, they can often end up on unfamiliar beaches — such as those frequented by humans and their dogs.

“We have been rescuing up to five elephant seal pups a day,” says Giancarlo Rulli, the center’s spokesperson.

“Young seal pups, especially recently weaned elephant seals like ‘Force,’ are at their most vulnerable stage of life as they begin to learn how to hunt for food on their own,” says Dr. Cara Field, Medical Director at The Marine Mammal Center.

Underweight and lethargic, “Force” was likely struggling to feed himself during this pivotal age. On Tuesday in Live Oak, volunteers gently corralled the pup into a large pet carrier and are now fattening him back up with “herring smoothies” in Moss Landing before he is transferred to the main rehabilitation center in Sausalito. Shwartz captured the rescue on video:

Across the 600 miles of coastline that the Marine Mammal Center covers, 40% of the total rescues performed are within Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. According to their website, the Center currently has one sea lion, two harbor seals, one Guadalupe fur seal (a threatened species), and 20 northern elephant seal patients, all of them pups, which were rescued in Santa Cruz County. Force’s release date back into the wild is yet to be determined.

The best thing you can do if you see any marine mammal on the beach — including otters, dolphins and whales — is to give it space (at least three car lengths), and encourage others to do the same. It’s understandable if you want to take a picture — it’s not every day that we get to see these magnificent creatures — but if the animal is looking at you or attempting to move away, you’re too close.

“Our big concern is human or dog interactions with these pups that are either resting on the beach as they learn how to feed on their own, or just need time to gather their strength,” says Rulli. “With this good weather, more people are heading out to the beaches, and the public really is our eyes and ears out there.”

If the animal appears to be in distress, or even dead, note its location and call The Marine Mammal Center’s 24/7 rescue hotline: (415) 289-SEAL (7325).