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Beach Etiquette: Mingling With Marine Mammals in Malibu

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It's a foggy but balmy morning. You and your main squeeze are strolling at the water's edge on a mostly deserted beach. That brownish clump of seaweed (or so you thought) in front of you suddenly sits up, utters a rather sad little bark, and slumps down again to the sand.

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You realize you are face to face with a marine critter of some sort. So what do you do? Take this quiz:

A) Walk up next to him and roll him over to see if something's wrong.
B) Pour some water on her to keep her moist.
C) Chase him back into the water where he belongs.
D) Put her in the back of your SUV and take her to the nearest animal shelter.
E) Cover him up with sand to protect him from the sun.
F) None of the above.

If you answered "F", you would be correct. You would also be in the minority of Southern California beachgoers, who are usually more than eager to help a stranded marine mammal and yet woefully uninformed about how to go about it correctly. So herewith a short primer on appropriate behavior upon encountering one of these adorable denizens of the deep.

First of all, immediately cast away any memories you have of those utterly heart-warming but totally misleading flicks that depict the warm and cuddly relationship between a marine mammal and a human -- 'Andre' was nothing more than an unadulterated wish-fulfillment fantasy. These are wild animals. To them, you are simply a predator who wants to attack, kill and eat them, and they will make sure you don't get the chance to do that. Their primary weapon is their teeth, and they will use that weapon to rip the flesh from your bones if they have to.

There, we've dealt with answers "A" and "D". No, you do not go anywhere near the animal, if you want to keep your well-tanned hide intact. And since these animals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, you can incur a fine of up to $10,000 by doing anything that could be considered harassment or interfering with their normal activities; that would definitely include giving them a ride in your vehicle, or encasing them in sand, as a misguided citizen did to this poor elephant seal:

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And you could easily end up with a very expensive $10,000 bite wound!

Oh, and trust me -- whatever rapturous bond you may feel you have with one of these appealing creatures, they're not feeling the love the way you are. I well recall a woman who went right up and placed her face about 12 inches away from the muzzle of a full-grown 160-pound female sea lion, cooing baby talk to it. If the sea lion had not been disoriented and disengaged due to a neurological condition, she would have torn that woman's face off. The woman assured me that she "had a spiritual bond" with the sick animal, and that "her name was Bunky," or some such nonsense. Seriously folks, I love these amazing creatures as much as the next guy, and more than most, but I respect them for what they are -- powerful, unpredictable, and wild -- and you should too. Consider this picture that Jeff took of a male sea lion charging toward him -- that was just before Jeff turned and ran for his life:

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If a marine mammal is on the beach, there is a good reason for that. Either this is part of his normal behavior, or there is something wrong. In either event, the animal has chosen to remove himself from the water with a purpose, and that immediate purpose is to get dry and get warm. So whaddaya think -- good idea to pour water on him and/or chase him into the water? Right. Not a good idea. So much for "B" and "C". Sea lions, especially if they're underweight, need to get out of the water and warm up on a regular basis. Elephant seals come ashore once a year to moult, and need to lie on the beach for up to two weeks to accomplish that. So there may be a perfectly innocuous and sensible reason for that critter to be lying there.

On the other hand, there may indeed be something amiss. There are any number of maladies and injuries and misfortunes that may have resulted in the animal curled up before you, looking desperately unhappy, like this poor critter:

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Of course you want to help. That's why you break out your trusty cell-phone and make a call. No, don't call 911 -- they get really annoyed if the sufferer in question is not of the human persuasion; no matter how much you may like animals better than people (I sympathize and empathize), you cannot expect emergency personnel to necessarily feel the same. Call the lifeguards, call the Sheriff's department, call the Parks department -- or make it simple and call us, cuz that's who all those people will be calling next. We are the California Wildlife Center (said he grandiosely -- actually, I'm just one of their volunteers, but we're quite proud of what we do!), and we have the "marine mammal franchise", as it were, from Topanga Canyon up to Pt. Mugu. Any stranded critter in distress on that stretch of coastline is our responsibility. So go ahead and save this number in your phone: 310-458-WILD.

Okay, you've made the call, and we're going to be calling you back shortly for some information. So if you really want to help, this is what you want to do:

1) Note exactly where the animal is in relation to a street address, or some easily-identifiable landmark, like a lifeguard tower or a prominent rock formation. If you know the name of the beach you're on, that helps. Be able to give exact directions if possible.
2) Note the size, coloring, and visible characteristics of the animal (see identification short-course below).
3) From a distance (30 feet is considered appropriate), consider the condition of the animal. Are there any visible wounds? Is the animal very thin, with ribs, hips, or backbone clearly outlined? Are his fins all tucked up underneath him, or is he sprawled out luxuriously in the sun? Does she remain unmoving and unresponsive when approached (from a suitable distance of course), or is she alert and moving around? Is she distracted and bobbing her head around?
4) Are there other people and/or dogs on the beach? Are they approaching the animal or interacting with it?

Until we arrive, if you are able to remain there, you can become an unofficial ambassador for wildlife! Educate other beachgoers on the proper Rules of Non-Engagement - tell them, in the nicest possible way of course (or sternly if they're belligerent - mention that $10,000 fine), to keep a safe distance from the animal, to keep their dogs leashed, and to leave the animal undisturbed.

Oh yeah, here's a quick and easy identification guide to the three marine mammals you're most likely to encounter:

Sea lion: brown fur, small pointed ears, tapered muzzle like a dog. Able to stand up on all four flippers and run like a dog. (Note: they can run you down if they're sufficiently agitated -- a grown male can move a heck of a lot faster on the sand than you can!)

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Elephant seal: gray-ish to black-ish fur. Huge round head like a bowling ball with great big black eyes. No visible ears. Less agile on the sand -- they move along like a caterpillar. You'll mostly see babies, around 3 feet long and 80 pounds or so.

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Harbor seal: paler coat with spots, no visible ears. Not as big as sea lions or elephant seals. You'll rarely find an adult on the beach -- mostly very young pups. Harbor seals are especially wary of humans.

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And while we're on the subject of harbor seals -- if you come upon a very small spotted pup, all alone on the beach, looking forlorn and abandoned like the one in the picture above, LEAVE HIM ALONE. His mother put him there while she went fishing, and will return for him; if she finds him surrounded by humans, or worse still, moved, she will be forced to abandon him, and you will have orphaned that pup. Do your best to keep the other humans as far away as possible, and call us right away so we can help clear the area and facilitate the reunion of mother and child.

So now you know what to do when you have the joy of sharing the surfside with these charismatic and very cool critters. Respect them, enjoy observing them, get them help if you suspect they may be in distress. Just don't get up close and personal!