Footage of a diver stroking a baby sea lion on a beach in California has sparked concerns among conservationists.
In the video, taken at the La Jolla beach in San Diego, the man can be seen crouching next to the pup, offering his hand then stroking its back. In the background, the coast guard can be heard asking him to step away from the sea lion.
“Out of the water, marine mammals are seeking a place to rest and recharge,” John Warner, CEO of the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, told Newsweek. “Interactions from people induce stress that may weaken their immune systems, or frighten them into abandoning pups or falling off rocks.”
Moving away from humans can cause the animals to waste precious energy reserves and disrupt essential feeding schedules for their young pups. “Every pup’s feed is timed by its mother to ensure her pup gets all the nutrients and calories her pup needs to give it the best chance of survival,” Sue Sayer, from the Seal Research Trust in the U.K, told Newsweek.
Touching these animals can also threaten the relationship between a mother and her pups. “People getting close or touching their pups can lead to a disruption of the bonding between a mom and her pup and may lead to her abandoning it,” Carol Toye from the Sierra Club Seal Society in San Diego told Newsweek.
Handling wild animals may pose a risk to humans too: “They may carry a range of diseases and bacteria which can result in serious infections, and are likely to bite or respond negatively to human interaction when provoked,” Warner said.
Both harbor seals and California sea lions are native to the North American west coast and have established breeding areas in La Jolla. “This means that they in our area year round,” Toye said. “Harbor seals give birth during February and March and California sea lions in June and July. We have around 150 to 200 sea lions here with some seasonal peaks and around 100 seals.”
Sea lion pups remain dependent on their mothers for up to 11 months and spend a lot of their time hauled out on the beach while they are young. “Pups are often left on land while their moms go to forage which makes them very vulnerable to humans approaching them or seeking to pet them,” Toye said.
“This area in La Jolla is highly visited area by tourists from all over the world and it is also an urban environment where it is difficult to properly manage human interactions with the animals.”
In the United States, sea lions and seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act which prohibits the harassment of these animals under federal law. However, the Sierra Club Seal Society, chaired by Robyn Davidoff, has compiled a list of tips for enjoying the local wildlife safely:
- Space—always stay at least 50 feet away from the animals and do not corner them or block their path.
- Calm—watch the animals quietly and move slowly around them. At night, using flashlights can disturb their sleep.
- Respect—never attempt to touch or chase them, or throw any food at them.
- Stay alert—if they move or bark they have been disturbed so move away quietly.
“By respecting these simple rules, visitors can respect the animals’ space and observe their natural behavior rather than watch them being continually disturbed,” Toye and Davidoff said. “We encourage the public to observe their behavior and recognize that if a seal or sea lion looks at you, you are disturbing it.”
Feeding the animals is of particular concern as this may teach them to actively approach humans for food. “When this happens, authorities will have to euthanize the animal since they pose serious safety and health risks to people,” Warner said. “If people realize that their actions can have serious life or death consequences for these animals that they clearly care about, I think they will do the right thing.”
If you encounter a sea lion or a seal that looks distressed, the best thing to do is to call your local marine mammal stranding organization. “People should never try to interact, move or cover an animal,” Warner said. “While intentions might be good, the outcome of trying to help a stranded animal by people without the proper knowledge and training is almost always negative and harmful. In Los Angeles County we ask people to call our hotline at 1-800-39-WHALE.”