Rescued marine mammals released on Vandenberg beaches
By Staff Sgt. Erica Picariello, 30th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published April 26, 2012
VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Two rescued and rehabilitated marine mammals were released on one of Vandenberg's remote beaches April 24.
A California Sea lion and a weaned Northern California Elephant Seal, referred to as a "weaner," were rescued in different locations off of California's central coast by members of the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center, but released near Vandenberg's Delta Mariner Dock.
"These mammals are found along California's Central Coast by beachgoers who assume they're in distress or dying and try to help them but end up doing more bad than good," said Peter Howorth, Santa Barbara Maine Mammal Center director. "The problem in public areas is that people won't leave [marine mammals] alone. Much of the time it's not that they need help it's that they just need to be kept away from people and dogs."
The female sea lion was found on El Capitan State Beach state park and had an injured flipper and the male "weaner" elephant seal was found in Santa Barbara. The sea lion was a resident of SBMMC for nearly a month while the uninjured elephant seal just needed a check-up and safe place to shed its baby skin.
"The elephant seals are born in the winter and they're weaned within three to four weeks of birth at which time they weigh 240 to 450 pounds," Howorth said. "As soon as they're weaned, the mom leaves them on the beach and the baby elephant seal doesn't eat and goes through a catastrophic molt. They lose the fur with the skin attached. It demands a lot of energy and they lose a lot of weight as a consequence. If you see them at the beginning of the molt it looks like they've got leprosy because there are bits of skin falling off with the skin attached. It's all perfectly normal and there is a new coat underneath that old one."
Some people see patches of the weaner's skin falling-off and take action to rescue the molting seals, but the best thing for these weaners is to provide them with privacy.
"People think, 'oh gosh, it's a marine mammal so it must stay wet!' But it's just trying to stay dry and shed its skin," Howorth said. "They don't want to be doused in water. They basically get constantly harassed so our policy is to pick them up as quickly as possible, check them out and then release them onto remote areas on the central coast where they can finish their molt in peace."
According to Howorth, one of the best places is on Vandenberg.
"Vandenberg provides one of the last unoccupied and pristine beaches for these mammals to finish molting or to find their way back to the beach that they were born," Howorth said.
SBMMC, a non-profit organization, not only rehabilitates and releases marine life on Vandenberg property, but also rescues mammals in need from Vandy's 42-miles of coastline.
"We're required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act to monitor our sensitive wildlife populations, and specifically to determine if Vandenberg space and missile launches as well as aircraft activity causes any negative impacts to the some marine life, seal and sea lion population," said Rhys Evans, 30th Civil Engineer Squadron natural resources lead. "Occasionally there are seals or sea lions in need of medical attention on Vandenberg shores and we call SBMMC for assistance. There has been at least once case this year."
This partnership with SBMMC also helps Vandenberg remain mission ready.
"We count seals before and after space launches, we use computers to determine if launches cause sonic booms either on the mainland or on the Northern Channel Islands which is subject to more significant regulation because much of the NCI are a national park and some portions are designated wilderness areas," Evans said. "We have both legal requirements and cooperative agreements on several levels with state and federal regulatory agencies, and they require us to monitor effects, potential effects and perceived effects of military operations. The SBMMC is not a regulator, but a cooperating non-profit organization, and their willingness to help us achieve some of our mandated goals is both voluntary and very much appreciated."
Allowing marine mammals to be released at Vandenberg may not be mandated, but is Non-Negotiable for some.
"We allow the marine mammals to be released here because it's the right thing to do and it doesn't expend significant government resources," Evans said. "The mammals will quite often leave the area within minutes, but it's nice to release them away from a lot of people, noise, pets... where they can have their best chance at recovery."