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​Volunteers fight to save starving Calif. sea lion pups

Dr Todd Schmitt, center, and veterinarian technician Jen Rego prepare an injured sea lion for eye surgery at SeaWorld's Animal Rescue Center Tuesday, March 10, 2015, in San Diego. Since January, more than 1,100 starving and sickly sea lion pups have washed up along California’s coast.

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. - The starving sea lion pup was so tiny that it looked like a rock at the base of the seaside cliff until it struggled to raise its head as humans approached.

It bleated weakly as volunteer Brennan Slavik eased it into a crate for transport to a rescue center, where it peered from a child's playpen with woeful eyes made enormous by an emaciated frame.

At almost a year, the pup weighed just 23 pounds -- a third of what it should -- and staff quietly took it to a private room, euthanized it and moved on.

It's a scenario playing out daily in California this year as rescue centers struggle to keep up with hundreds of sick and starving sea lion pups washing up along the coast. More than 1,100 pups have been rescued since January from beaches, but also from inside public restrooms, behind buildings and along railroad tracks.

It's not unusual to have some sea lions wash up each spring as the pups leave their mothers, but so far, the number of stranded babies is five times greater than in 2013, the worst season in recent memory.

"These animals are coming in really desperate. They're at the end of life. They're in a crisis ... and not all animals are going to make it," said Keith A. Matassa, executive director at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, which is currently rehabilitating 115 sea lion pups.

The situation is so bad that Sea World suspended its sea lion show so it can focus on rescue efforts. The theme park has treated 400 pups -- more than twice the number it would care for in a typical year -- and constructed two temporary pools to house them.

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Rescued sea lion pups rest in a holding pen at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, Monday, March 2, 2015, in Laguna Beach, Calif.
Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

Scientists aren't sure what's causing the crisis, but suspect that warmer waters from this winter's mild El Nino weather pattern are impacting the sea lion birthing grounds along the Channel Islands off the Southern California coast.

The warm water is likely pushing prime sea lion foods -- market squid, sardines and anchovies -- further north, forcing the mothers to abandon their pups for up to eight days at a time in search of sustenance.

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Marine Mammal Center veternarian tech Lauren Campbell carries a sick and malnourished sea lion pup at the Marine Mammal Center on February 24, 2015 in Sausalito, Calif.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The pups, scientists believe, are weaning themselves early out of desperation and setting out on their own despite being underweight and ill-prepared to hunt.

Sea lions wouldn't normally start showing up in large numbers until April or May but this year, rescue centers began to get calls in December, said Matassa.

"They're leaving with a very low tank of gas and when they get over here, they're showing up on the beach basically ... starving to death," said Justin Viezbicke, a coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's California Stranding Network.

For rescue centers like the one in Laguna Beach, that translates into round-the-clock, back-breaking work for dozens of volunteers who've arrived from all over the U.S. to help.