How to Save a Sea Lion Reflections on the leptospirosis epidemic and a sea lion named Oz

Story and photos by Kyle Martin

When they named him “Oz,” I thought I’d saved him. This was a couple of weeks ago, and I thought it was some major revelation — maybe some sort of spiritual connection to the planet, honestly. For all intents and purposes, I had saved a sea lion.

I’d had this New York Times essay by Heidi Julavits on my mind for about a week or so, and I figured I was living some sort of manifestation of a Robert Smithson performance art piece. Julavits’ brilliant essay takes you deep into this idea of a consciousness outside of your physical space. It’s the story of her trip with her family to Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” which is a big deal to a lot of people.

Okay, so here I was finding art in the middle of nowhere.

Moss Landing was supposed to be a casual stop and meet with my bosses, and right after I would down a couple espresso shots (circa 6 p.m. or so) and get to work because I had work to do; another deadline to meet.

Having just moved here from a suburb of Dallas, Texas, I guess some part of me sought to relive old memories I’d forgotten. I was born in San Jose and partly grew up in Hollister, but my folks moved us out to the Lone Star State to be closer to family in 2005. I’d say it was because of the recession, but I guess I don’t know everything — I was just a kid, after all, and we arrived the night of my ninth birthday.

For the last 13 years, Texas has been my home, and at this point, I feel like it always will be. But here I am, in this place I’ve been before, rediscovering a past life, of sorts, in an old home where I feel like a familiar stranger.

I’m back living in the Bay Area, and I’m at Phil’s Fish Market, staring at the beach for lunch. I’d been here before. The salty, fishy, greasy smells, the clam chowder, bread bowl, beachfront table — all once distant, but now vivid memories from my childhood. Good memories, given to me and my siblings by gracious Filipino immigrant parents who sought to teach us everything about a place’s true culture.

I was in Moss Landing to shoot a video, and this was my lunch break. So I finished my food and took off down the end of the road, to the beach. I needed some B-roll, which has since been lost to a storage-drive mishap (i.e. it’s gone).

I remember thinking everything happening at the beach at that moment seemed to be right. It hadn’t even been two months doing freelance work in the area, but a few things had been going my way. With a newly-achieved college degree, and the loans to prove it, just having work felt like a leg up.

It was beautiful. The idea of survival.

Which is why when I saw the first dead sea lion on that beach, I think I didn’t notice it right away.

With that Times essay in mind, I thought I was seeing art in this environmental place. Having been landlocked in Texas for more than a dozen years, the beach is something that grounds me. In short, the ocean gives me life — it’s a family thing.

And by the time I saw the second dead sea lion, I had snapped out of this headspace of stoic meditation to reality — there were dead sea lions in front of me, with maggots devouring their insides. The gray masses on the beach weren’t just rocks.

I’d never been so up close and personal with such a large, dead animal. One of them could have been 80 pounds. I counted at least three dead.

I’d never been hunting. I’d seen roadkill before, but this was something else.

This was all happening in a space that I thought of as art, a sanctuary, even —  a space lots of folks would pay loads of money to own. This space was for everybody, though, especially the marine creatures that inhabit it. And seeing the native marine mammals dead in front of me was like drinking sour milk.

I’m a journalist, I thought, and I grabbed my camera to shoot the scene.

Their corpses lay on the sand near the mouth of the Elkhorn Slough, on the other side of the entrance channel, inland where some of the area’s boats launch from. It was evening, but the sun was coming down, and would paint the beach orange at sunset.

I didn’t see a living sea lion until he kicked up on his front flippers and barked at me for getting too close with my camera. I didn’t realize he was alive until he stood his ground. I was stunned and amazed, having never been so close to a sea lion before.

But he hovered on his front end only for a moment, before flopping back down. He got used to me. I just sat there looking at him.

Something was clearly wrong with him. His left eye was clamped shut, and he was hurt. I didn’t know what a healthy sea lion looked like at the time, but I knew he wasn’t one of them.

So what do you do as a foreigner to the area faced with the life of a sickly animal staring you in the eye? Panic? Who you gonna call? How do you process trying to save a dying animal’s life in a dire circumstance?

I had no idea. So I called my editor, Julie Reynolds Martinez. She told me there was a lab down the street that might help.

I drove down the street and found out that there is a savvy Monterey Bay Aquarium research lab facility down near, and their friendly researchers had the emergency hotline number for the rescue outfit linked to the Marine Mammal Center.

I called it in. They answered. A rescue was possible.

And so I waited.

I waited on that rescue team to arrive for maybe an hour or two, and they came at what people, like photographers, often call “Golden Hour,” which is a certain time just before dusk when available sunlight offers a generally “golden” color to work with.

At first they didn’t see Oz, they told me. I was down at the end of the beach taking photographs near the water. When they spotted me, I was just some guy on the beach; and I hadn’t realized they were the rescue team, I just thought they were random people.

One of the rescuers told me they would have packed up and gone if they didn’t stop to ask someone — me —if they’d called in a rescue. Over the last few years, I’ve come to realize what can happen if you stop to ask someone about something you’re curious about. And I think that’s how I came to disturb Oz on the beach that day.

Anyway, they hadn’t quite found him by the time they met me, and asked that I point him out.  When we squished back up the sand toward the top of the beach where my new sea lion friend was, I thought maybe he’d died in the time I waited for these gracious rescuers to show up, and from afar I saw he wasn’t moving.

But we got up close and there he was, still in distress, but alive. A phone call was made, there was some discussion, and the decision to capture and rescue Oz was made. He would soon be transported back to the Marine Mammal Center’s Monterey Bay Operation, which is a local triage center in Moss Landing.

The cadre of rescuers began unpacking gear from their Ford F-150 rescue truck. They had wooden shields to guide a sea lion into a cage, along with a net. And then they went to work, trying to get Oz into a cage so he could receive care from a veterinarian.

When all was said and done, it took maybe an hour for them to wrestle that sea lion into the cage and heft it back up the beach and into the truck. And then off they went.

As far as I knew, I had just rescued a sea lion named Oz.

That’s the way I understood the story then. Which was so fascinating to me, because I had just played drums (it’s a side gig) for a musical production of “The Wizard of Oz” I’d had that music (devastatingly) stuck in my head for months.

In a lot of ways, I am fascinated by the idea of grand adventure the story of “The Wizard of Oz” depicts. The separation from your home, making friends in a new world, discovering yourself through trials and hardship … I love all of that.

I was happily surprised the team decided to name this new sea lion fella Oz, if not for anything else but the (literally) wild coincidence. I was even more excited to find out that once he received the proper care from the Mammal Center’s veterinarians, I could visit him after he was transferred to Sausalito.

And I went home for Thanksgiving. Took a break, and took in almost two weeks of uninterrupted Texas time with my family.

My plan was simple: come back from Thanksgiving, visit Oz and put out this story online. Struggle, wild coincidence, marine life, rescue, the works — I was ready.

This next part, though, I was not ready for. I got this Nov. 30 email from Marine Mammal Center spokesman Giancarlo Rulli, re: Story about recently saved sea lion, “Oz.”

Good afternoon Kyle,

Thanks for reaching out to us here at The Marine Mammal Center about California sea lion Oz and for your support in making the call to our rescue hotline prior to the rescue effort. I checked in with the Center’s Rescue Department here at our Sausalito hospital and sadly learned that Center veterinarians made the difficult decision on November 19 to humanely euthanize Oz after he did not respond to supportive care for leptospirosis and continued to deteriorate in health. While our mission is to return all of our patients back to their ocean home, any time a patient in our care passes away, it receives a full necropsy, or animal autopsy, which teaches us more about the species and the ocean environment as a whole. The juvenile male sea lion is one of more than 250 sea lions the Center has admitted so far this year impacted by leptospirosis, a potentially fatal bacterial infection that can cause kidney failure.

I can definitely check in with our veterinary team on Monday and see if someone is available early next week to speak with you further on Oz’s case. In the meantime, I’ve included some background information about this year’s leptospirosis outbreak in California sea lions from a press release sent last month.

Sincerely,

Giancarlo Rulli

Marketing & Communications Associate

The Marine Mammal Center

I was devastated. I’ve reported on death and disaster before, and of course I read the news, so after such vicious consumption of negative content, a journalist tends to think they’re desensitized to such painful stuff.

But I guess this was the first time I was so tightly woven into a “source’s” last moments.  It felt like a gut punch I wasn’t ready for. In my mind, the story was so clear, so clean cut. It would be another feel-good piece that just made you warm by the very nature of it.

But nature includes the death of animals.

And I found out that in my entire encounter with Oz, I only did one thing right — I called it in.

“We rely on people calling in and sharing what they’re seeing and what they’re concerned about,” Emily Whitmer, a veterinarian with the Marine Mammal Center, told me.

She also told me you’re not supposed to approach the animals in their natural habitat, because you could disturb them or, honestly, they could hurt you. They are wild animals, after all.

So in speaking with her, I found out that it’s important to be vigilant and observant in wild habitats because you might find a sickly sea lion in need of rescuing, like Oz, and hopefully the animal can be treated and released back into the wild.

She offered three pieces of advice for people in unfamiliar ecosystems:

  • Maintain a safe distance (you’ll need a zoom on your camera to get a good shot, or you’re too close, she said)
  • STAY a safe distance away
  • And CALL the Marine Mammal Center’s rescue hotline, 415-289-SEAL or 415-289-7325, with any and all questions or reports.

Also, look around for any informational signs posted that offer tips on what to do if you see marine life in distress in the area.

So, a big takeaway from those tips I got is that I did everything wrong but one thing: calling. And, really, that’s what will save more sea lions. Call the Marine Mammal Center to report what you’ve found.

She also told me the Marine Mammal Center reports this outbreak of leptospirosis to be the second largest in more than 40 years since the center opened. Every four to five years, the endemic disease flares back up, but not quite so often as this. Which is another reason to observe marine life with serious caution.

The disease is a naturally occurring phenomenon, so there’s not much humans can do about it. Cutting back on single-use plastics, eating and supporting sustainable seafood, and volunteering time and donating resources to marine conservation groups are all things humans can do to help marine life.

All of this was a lot to take in, and processing it has taken me time.

What I thought was this grand escapade of heroism (and maybe a hint of narcissism) really turned out to be just one giant learning experience on death, and how I helped a scientific organization ease the suffering of a terminally ill Oz.

Even still, I can’t shake the idea of the art in a place, like I first thought about with that Times essay. I can’t shake this idea that I was exposed to one of the most romantic and artful performances of tragedy, life and death I’ve ever seen — all in this space that is so new, and yet so familiar, to me.

Everything I’d ever experienced in all my years of watching Discovery Channel and BBC specials on nature and the environment could not have prepared me for the death of a sea lion I never knew. And it took all of that for me to really understand that I’m not in Texas anymore.

I’m here, in California. And I’m here to see the natural art in this place.

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Kyle Martin

About Kyle Martin

Kyle Martin is a multimedia journalist and devout San Francisco Giants fan from Dallas, Texas. After driving his 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee alone cross-country, through the circles of Hell known as the Texas Panhandle and Wyoming, he is now based in the Bay Area. He has experience writing and photographing for The Dallas Morning News, Denton Record-Chronicle, Dallas Observer and more. Send news tips and restaurant recommendations to kylebmartin96@gmail.com