A young sea lion found wandering down Highway 1 near Fort Bragg over the weekend was returned to the ocean before too long, as nothing obvious warranted veterinary intervention.
But the incident reveals one of the challenges of an ongoing crisis that’s so far involved more than 2,700 sea lions that have turned up starving and emaciated on the California Coast since January: Even if they survive and grow strong enough to go back to the wild, it’s not clear how well they’ll get along.
The friendly juvenile found early Sunday by two Mendocino County deputies on routine patrol south of the city of Fort Bragg was a quarter-mile from shore in the path of traffic on a dark, foggy night when the two men stopped to check on the animal and it affectionately rubbed up against their legs.
An orange tag found on its flipper revealed why, the Sheriff’s Office said.
It already had been rescued once and rehabilitated at the Marine Mammal Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, then released back to the ocean after learning to interact with humans.
Mendocino County sheriff’s deputies Sergio Chora-Alvarado and Ze Manuel Lima learned that much when they phoned the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, where someone ran the tag and confirmed the sea lion — which weighed about 20 pounds and was 30 inches long — was a former patient in San Pedro.
But because its health appeared to be about the same as it was when released and it did not display obvious distress, the deputies were told simply to take it back to the ocean, so it got a ride in a police cruiser, authorities said.
Representatives of the Marine Mammal Center were not available late Tuesday to say how long ago the animal had been released, or where.
The state’s marine mammal rehabilitation facilities have grappled with mass strandings of sea lion juveniles and pups that has just been officially declared an unusual mortality event by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. More than 1,000 were found stranded last month alone, NOAA said.
Though the affected animals have been concentrated in Central and, especially, Southern California, some of them have found their way north.
Mendocino County authorities said the pup that found its way back to shore Sunday morning was indistinguishable in the dark and moving slowly on the road when the deputies came upon it at about 1 a.m.
It doubtless would have been struck and killed or injured had they not stopped to render aid and escort it back to the ocean, they said.
Civilians who encounter an injured or distressed sea lion, or any other marine mammal, should not go near it but are asked to report it to the Marine Mammal Stranding Network by calling 415-289-7325, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the Marine Mammal Center that treated the sea lion.