A sea lion that swam and waddled at least 50 miles from the ocean into an Oakville cattle farm was found dead on Friday in Olympia.
Samples from a necropsy were being shipped out Tuesday, but no immediate cause of death could be found.
The long, strange journey for the male California sea lion began sometime before April 15. That’s when a cattle farmer near Oakville, a small community northwest of Centralia, found the animal in the driveway of his farm.
Ken Shively, the owner of Soggy Bottom Farm, returned home to discover his gate crashed open. Nearby he saw what he thought was a dead deer or elk.
But the large brown mass raised its head and started barking at him. He immediately woke his wife, Julie, from a nap.
“I asked her about the sea lion in the front driveway, and she thought I was pulling her leg,” Shively said.
He didn’t get a much better response from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“They didn’t believe us,” Shively recalled. “They were like, ‘A what? Can you describe that to us?’ They didn’t even know where Oakville was.”
The sea lion was about 200 yards from Garrard Creek, a tributary of the Chehalis River, and a good 50 miles of river, creek and drainage ditch travel from Grays Harbor.
But soon Fish and Wildlife had three law enforcement officers and a marine mammal biologist on scene.
“It was an unusual sight to see,” said Sgt. Bob Weaver of the department’s enforcement division. “I’ve dealt with sea lions before but never in a cattle farm. After 16 years, this is the most unusual (call) I’ve had.”
The Fish and Wildlife personnel easily corralled the sea lion into a cage on a flatbed trailer.
“All our cows came running over to see what all the excitement was about,” Shively said.
Shively wasn’t surprised as he could have been by the find. For the past month, a rumor of a sea lion living in Garrard Creek had been circulating in the region.
It’s not unusual for a sea lion to travel far up rivers in the pursuit of salmon and other fish.
“The unusual part is that it went up that little creek,” said Steve Jeffries, a research scientist with Fish and Wildlife and a veteran of past wayward sea lions.
“We had one sea lion that went around the Yelm diversion dam all way to La Grande,” Jeffries said.
Weaver estimates the animal swam or waddled five miles up Garrard Creek. In some places the creek is only a foot deep.
Shively figured it must have used a drainage ditch and roads to get to his place. He thinks a car might have spooked it, causing it to crash through his gate.
Biologist Dyanna Lambourn examined the sea lion at the farm and found no obvious injuries or illnesses.
“Yes, he was thin,” Lambourn said. “But nothing else jumped out other than him being in a place he shouldn’t be.”
Jeffries estimated that the sea lion was seven to 10 years old and weighed 350 to 400 pounds. A normal adult male should tip the scales at 650 to 750 pounds.
Fish and Wildlife doesn’t have the facilities to rehabilitate or assess sea lions. That played into Lambourn’s decision to release the animal into Puget Sound at Solo Point in DuPont that evening.
Before letting the sea lion go, she marked him with a green paint used for cattle and sheep so that he could be identified later.
On April 21, a sea lion was seen near the Port of Olympia’s plaza.
“It was laying on the beach, sunning itself,” said Jay Hall, harbor operations technician for the port. “It looked fairly healthy.”
But the next day a sea lion was found dead under the Fourth Avenue bridge in Olympia. On its body was the distinctive green paint.
Fish and Wildlife picked up the body Saturday.
On Sunday, Lambourn performed a necropsy on the sea lion at the Fish and Wildlife laboratory in Lakewood. She found some signs of ill health, but it was hard to tell exactly what without further test results.
One of the samples taken was for domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by algae blooms. It can affect a sea lion’s neurological functioning, including navigation and memory. It can also cause seizures.
The acid is causing other problems in the ocean.
“It’s the reason why we’re not opening up razor clams,” Jeffries said. “It’s the reason why they didn’t open up Dungeness crabs.”
In California, where all sea lions originate, the population has been hit by low birth rates and high mortality.
“Domoic acid is one of the things we see very frequently in our sea lion populations,” said Cara Field, a staff veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California.
Multiple exposures to the acid can cause brain damage.
“That brain damage causes memory loss,” Field said. Because of that the animals can lose track of where they, she said.
Cancer rates are also rising, affecting 25 percent of adult sea lions, Field said.
Despite the multiple challenges sea lions face, Field said the overall population, which stands at 300,000, is in decent shape. Lambourn agreed.
“California sea lion populations are currently above historic levels,” Lambourn said. “I don’t think sea lions are anywhere in trouble.”
In fact, numbers might be too high. When an animal population gets above the ecosystem’s carrying capacity, problems can arise.
“There’s an environment out there that can’t support the number of sea lions,” Lambourn said. “When you hit that you’re going to see increased disease and increased mortality.”
West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding hot line: 800-853-1964