Dozens of bony sea lion pups are overwhelming San Pedro's Marine Mammal Care Center - barking, yelping, and groaning like restless children.
A cadre of dedicated volunteers is struggling to keep up with the surge, possibly brought on by more pups leaving their mothers earlier than usual, center officials believe. Without refined hunting skills, the pups are turning up on local beaches emaciated and confused.
The center in January saw a record 43 sea lions come through its doors - a trend that hasn't let up in the first part of February, said David Bard, operations director of the center at Fort MacArthur. But the influx reached a peak on Saturday, with 12 sea lions arriving at the already crowded center. There are now about 85 animals being cared for, Bard said.
Over the last 20 years, the facility reported an average of 12 strandings in January within Los Angeles County.
"To see nearly 50 arrive in January is very rare for us," Bard said. "They're coming in starving and in record numbers. Nutrition is their biggest challenge."
It's not uncommon for the Marine Mammal Care Center to see an influx of young sea lions and elephant seals during certain months of the year.
Sea lion pups, for example, are typically born from May to August, and spend a few months with their mothers before venturing out into the ocean to catch food on their own.
That transition to adulthood can be tough; Bard said the center counts on seeing higher numbers of hungry young sea lions in October and November - which typically are the first few months they have to fend for themselves.
And so for that reason the influx this month and last has been surprising, he said.
"It's a little later than we expect, and in higher numbers," he said. "We keep on thinking it could be an increase in population, or an increase in food competition. It could be any number of things."
While the center won't turn anyone away, it's faced with the challenge of feeding and providing medical care for more animals - not to mention cleaning up after them. Their diets consist of clear fluids and supplements, gruel, and, once they've worked up to eating and catching small fish, capelin and herring.
Among the items on a Care Center wish list are Karo light corn syrup - which can help with low blood-sugar levels - bleach for cleaning purposes, along with a backup electric dryer and more.
And monetary donations also are welcome; the center asks that checks are made payable to the Marine Mammal Care Center and mailed to: 3601 S. Gaffey St., San Pedro, CA 90731.