Marine Mammal’s Best Friend
By Karen Telleen-Lawton
“Ready to go?” asks Peter Howorth, gesturing toward a white utility truck labeled “Marine Mammal Rescue.” Howorth is the founder and director of Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center. He has just received a call about distressed sea lions at East Beach.
Lurching across the sand on special wide tires, we approach a beach walker watching over a scrawny pup with huge innocent eyes. Howorth speaks softly to both, motioning the woman to move farther away while he deftly nets the pup. He drags it along the surf to the truck and lowers an automatic lift with a large animal crate. Too weak to protest, it willingly exchanges the net for the crate, and we have our first rescue.
A fisherman has scared the other starving pup back into the ocean. “It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” Howorth laments. “Every time they’re chased back, it burns precious calories.”
We wait until the pup re-emerges. In a few minutes, the tired animal returns to shore. On secluded island beaches and buoys, it’s common for sea lions to warm themselves, but only unhealthy animals will haul out on a public beach. Howorth wades into the surf to net #2, loading it into the same carrier. “Won’t they fight?” I wonder. Howorth says they’re too weakened from hunger. He judges that they’re females: “Immature males look like adolescent boys, with their feet that seem too big for their bodies,” he chuckles.
Typically born the third week of June, these pups are likely about eight months old, but pathetically small. “These guys are probably 25–30 pounds,” he says. “Some newborns weigh more than that.” Howorth assesses the pups’ health. Stage one stranded pups haven’t eaten in two or three weeks. Their scrawniness shows they’ve used up their fat stores. Stage two pups have burned through their blubber; they’re like ocean swimmers without wetsuits. In stage three, starving pups are metabolizing their muscle. “We’re seeing late stage two to middle stage three pups now,” he says.
This time of year, Howorth and volunteers are busy with rescues year-round, “from first light to twilight.” Strandlings have greatly increased in the past several years. The chief factors may be prey abundance and increased maternal foraging times, thus less nursing time.
Howorth began diving in 1954, mesmerized by underwater life. After high school, he started catching live marine mammals for marine parks. It was a grand adventure for a while, until he no longer enjoyed consigning them to captivity. That’s when he started the nonprofit, “to save stranded marine mammals.”
By the time he shifts the pups into temporary quarters, two more calls have come in. We drive to the Bacara, where Howorth unlocks a chain-link gate across a dirt road. He has keys to every beach access point in Santa Barbara County. Again, the pup submits compliantly to capture. Howorth tells me that 80 to 90% are returned to the wild, the center has the highest success rate of returning any marine mammal to its home. “The young critters are always hard to release,” Howorth admits. “It’s like sending your kid off to school for the first time.”
This rescue is followed by a call to Arroyo Burro Beach, where an off-leash dog apparently attacked a sea lion pup. The woman who called flags us down. She says the pit bull chased the sea lion back into the water, but now both are gone. Howorth logs the incident. An ardent dog lover, he is frustrated by unleashed pets on the beach. “Call us, guard the marine mammal, but don’t be confrontational,” he counsels. Likely the pup will show up elsewhere tomorrow, even weaker.
Howorth is philosophical about his work. He is proud to contribute to science and to public health, by removing possibly diseased animals. More importantly, he has saved thousands of marine mammals, both common and endangered. He has also made a difference in hundreds of human lives. Many of his volunteers have moved on to careers in veterinary medicine, elite Navy programs, Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society and wildlife management. Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center has trained scientists, government officials and rehabilitators throughout the U.S., Mexico, the Galapagos and Japan using his techniques.
“It’s a privilege to be around animals and people who care,” says Howorth. “My philosophy is to think and act globally, because I consider marine mammals international citizens.” He glances down at his phone. Another international citizen needs rescuing.
If you spot a stranded marine mammal:
Immediately call the hotline at 805/687-3255. Leave it alone and do not get it wet. Do not try to get it into the water and do not feed it. Harassing marine mammals is a $20,000 felony. For more information visit sbmmc.org.
Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.