LOS ANGELES — The pickup crept down the steep drive to the beach at White Point in San Pedro, Calif. When the driver reached the bottom, he carefully backed the truck as close as he could to the water, the surf fizzing like soda being poured in a glass of ice.
It's a route that Harry Mansfield, a volunteer at the Marine Mammal Care Center a few miles away, could probably travel with his eyes closed by now.
For the last few months, he's repeated the routine as many as a dozen times a week: delivering sea lion pups that once nearly died in these waters off Southern California to a second chance at life in the wild.
Although the waves were choppier than Mansfield would have preferred, the sea lions, waiting in their crates, perked up as soon as they caught a whiff of the salt in the air, their whiskers twitching.
They were eager to splash into the ocean.
But the year-old sea lion known as 534 huddled in his crate. He'd come to the center May 11, after being found stranded on a beach in Malibu, more dead than alive.
Two months later, he'd nearly tripled in size. Every test showed he was healthy, ready for the wild.
Yet here he was, hesitating, as the currents of a vast ocean waited to draw him back in.
Influx of pups
As soon as the year began, veterinarian Lauren Palmer could tell something was wrong.
January was traditionally a slow period for sea lions at the San Pedro care center. But nearly 50 sea lions had come in, more than twice than the year before. In February, 105 were admitted. The next month, nearly 240.
It was the same in care centers from San Diego to Santa Barbara, all inundated with the pups that had washed up on shore.
They arrived severely malnourished, often suffering from other ailments and injuries they picked up as they grew weak. Their ribs poked through their fur. They would sprawl out on the floor of their pens, with barely enough energy to yawn.
"They were emaciated, listless," said Christopher Nagle, a marine biologist at the center. "They were just pitiful."
By March, federal wildlife officials declared an "unusual mortality event," a designation that mobilized researchers to figure why mothers had abandoned their young. A working theory among some scientists is that mothers left in search of food, and were forced to travel farther because of a short supply.
The San Pedro center, in a typical year, might take in a couple hundred California sea lions. Eight months into the year, they were well past that, admitting about 500 sea lions.
"It was a very, very busy spring," said Palmer.
At first glance, the San Pedro center could pass as a retrofitted dog kennel, a series of chain-link pens, where sea lions splash in pools, slide on wet concrete and yap loudly as they jostle with one another.
This spring, the sea lion pups claimed space all over the center: A storage room was emptied to hold 10. The room where Palmer performed necropsies took in 30 more.
"There was no visible concrete," Palmer recalled. "Everywhere you looked, there was a sea lion in it or on it."
The patients have already eaten through the center's annual budget of up to $80,000 for capelin and herring, officials at the center say. At one point, the center was going through thousands of pounds of fish each week.
Return to nature
In recent weeks, the tide has shifted: More sea lions were going out than coming in. Storage rooms were holding supplies again.
And on this July day, Palmer was ready to let some more go.
She kept tabs on her patients' weight and the results of blood work. But the final call hinged on something no test would reveal. She watched their behavior, how they acted when workers flung fish into the pens or a cluster of pups wrestled in the pool: Could they hold their own?
It's a tricky decision, she said. Unless they're found stranded again, Palmer doesn't know what happens to her patients once they leave her care. "They don't send postcards!" she joked.