Guadalupe fur seals are showing up along Orange County coast — could they be returning to their habitat of centuries ago?
DANA POINT — At first, the animal was described as an otter. Then it was described as a sea lion behaving like an otter by floating on its back.
“When I saw the photo, I knew immediately that it was a Guadalupe fur seal,” said Todd Mansur, a boat captain with Dana Wharf Whale Watching.
Charter boat captains traveling off Dana Point and Laguna Beach have seen the seals for several weeks. Similar in appearance to California sea lions, fur seals are best distinguished by their behavior.
“Fur seals will lie at the surface on their backs with their flippers crossed and will look like a sea otter,” Mansur said. “People mistake them for a sea lion acting funny. Sometimes, they fold their hind flipper into their pectoral fin making it look like a teapot handle.”
Mansur and other researchers say the seals might be venturing back to an area they once populated.
“They may be having troubles and are not entirely familiar with the environment,” he said. “They’re also competing against sea lions. Typically, they would not be this close to shore but food could be driving them there. Maybe they’re getting back to something that they used to populate 200 years ago. Maybe this is normal, but to us, it isn’t.”
The seals are classified as “near threatened” after being hunted to near extinction for their pelts in the 1800s. Because of that, not a lot of research has been done on them.
Their only known breeding colony is on Guadalupe Island, off the Mexico coast, about 350 miles from Dana Point. In recent years, though, some have been seen on the Channel Islands, which are known to be rookeries for sea lions.
In 2015, Guadeloupe fur seals were found emaciated and starving along parts of the Central California coast. At the time, the stranding numbers were eight times higher than historical averages. Strandings have continued and remain above average.
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, which rescues marine mammals along Orange County’s coastline, has taken in six Guadalupe fur seals this year — three alive, three dead. Of the three found living, one died after transport to SeaWorld San Diego and two died at PMMC before they could be transferred to SeaWorld.
The seals were juveniles, about 10 months old and extremely underweight.
“They are coming to us so emaciated they don’t even have enough energy to lift their heads,” said Krysta Higuchi, spokeswoman for PMMC.
Peak season for these animals to strand is between April and June.