A sea lion on 8th Street?
It certainly wasn’t a typical start to a workday.
When an employee arrived to work early on Monday morning in the 19000 block of Eighth Street East, he had to rub his eyes to make sure what he was seeing was real. There, in the parking lot of the industrial warehouse district, was a full-grown sea lion.
“He called us because he didn’t know what else to do,” said Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett. “We went out to help, more out of curiosity than anything.”
Sackett said his officers also contacted the nonprofit Marine Mammal Center in Marin County, which rescues sick, injured and wayward sea creatures, treats their ailments and returns them back to the wild, if appropriate. When the center’s recovery team got to Sonoma, they found a familiar face.
“It was a sea lion that was known to us, we’d picked it up once before,” said Jim Oswald, spokesman for the Marine Mammal Center. “It came in in December after a shark bite attack.”
Missile Toe, named for the season she was found and the Marine Mammal Center’s location at a former Cold War Nike missile site, seemed to have an affinity for parking lots. She was first discovered on Dec. 22, in a parking lot at Navarro Beach in Mendocino County, with a large gash to her flipper, assumed to be the damage of a shark.
The Marine Mammal Center patched her up before releasing her into the waves at Bodega Bay early in January.
How she made it up to Sonoma is a bit of a mystery. “She was found a good mile away from any water source,” Oswald said. “She went from the ocean, up the waterway, through the creek and then up onto land for a good ways.”
But shortly after bringing Missile Toe back to the Sausalito-based research center, marine biologists determined why the sea lion got so mixed up in her navigation. She was diagnosed with a chronic case of domoic acid toxicity, which over time deteriorates the brain – specifically the hippocampus, impacting an animal’s sense of direction, among other things.
“Domoic acid toxicity causes epileptic seizures as well,” Oswald said.
He explained that sea lions, or any marine mammal that primarily feeds on fish, can acquire this affliction after eating fish that have consumed domoic acid during algal blooms, often called “Red Tide.” While the blooms do occur naturally, the size and frequency of such blooms has increased at an unnatural rate, largely due to human influence through chemicals in the water, such as agricultural runoff. The toxins build up in the fish and can be passed on to other marine life and even humans. It’s a condition that was first detected by the Marine Mammal Center in 1998 following an unusually large algal bloom sparked by abnormal weather conditions during an El Nino season.
In 2004, the Marine Mammal Center earned an extensive grant from the Oceans and Human Health Initiative to further research the condition and its widespread impacts. That research continues, as the scientists learn more about the prominence of domoic acid.
Missile Toe will become a part of that research. The biologists at the Marine Mammal Center found that the damage to her brain was so severe, it wasn’t safe to put her back in the wild as she was likely to get lost again. Instead of going toward land, some sea lions with domoic acid toxicity instead swim away from the shore, heading out into the open sea.
“Eventually, they just become too tired and drown,” Oswald said. “It definitely wasn’t humane to send her back to the wild.”
Her condition also means she wasn’t a good fit for aquariums or private organizations, and so she was euthanized. Marine Mammal Center biologists will study her brain, hopeful to find more answers about the condition, which perhaps one day will lead to a cure.
“That information will be used to help other animals, so she definitely didn’t die in vain,” Oswald said.
Last year, of the 544 marine mammals that the center took in, 235 were sea lions. Of that number, 34 sea lions were found to have signs of domoic acid toxicity. “There are some years when it’s much higher because there’s a heavy (algal) bloom,” Oswald said. “The depth and breadth of this disease is certainly prevalent along the California coast.”
If you find a sick, injured or lost marine animal, contact the Marine Mammal Center’s 24-hour hotline at 415-289-7325.