The San Diego Zoo has had a variety of sea lion species over the years, but it was California sea lions that played a vital role in the growth and success of the Zoo’s history. Without them, we might not hold the “world-famous” status that we do today. Our Zoo’s founder, Harry Wegeforth, M.D., immediately recognized the popularity of California sea lions among Zoo guests and began working to preserve the public fascination with them.
Because the animals were plentiful off our own coastline, they were collected, brought to the Zoo, and then traded for more exotic species with other zoos around the world. From our member magazine ZOONOOZ, July 1938: “During a recent trip in the East, we had to smile at the amazing popularity of our common California sea lions. Although most zoos exhibited only one or two specimens of these aquatic clowns, the enclosures were always surrounded by laughing faces.”
In 1926, a fierce storm created a flood that washed away the fencing surrounding the Zoo’s sea lion pools. Within minutes, 26 sea lions had been swept away from their Zoo home and onto the streets of downtown San Diego! They were retrieved from the police station, newspaper offices, front porches, and various shops.
As early as 1928, a former circus trainer known as Captain Charles Jensen set up a small stage and trained California sea lions for his weekend shows in the area of the Zoo now known as Raintree Grove, just in front of our current Children’s Zoo. By the time of the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition, he was entertaining capacity crowds with two shows daily. In 1936, Wegeforth Bowl was built to seat 1,500 people. Over the years it has nurtured many real troupers with varied talents, but in 1958 a half-circle pool at the front of the stage was added to show off our sea lions’ swimming skills. The shows included sea lions performing several “tricks,” such as balancing balls or batons on the nose, climbing stairs—even riding a pony!
Today, the Zoo has four sea lion ambassadors who show off their natural talents to the amazement of our guests: Jake and Cabo were born at the Zoo, Riley was found stranded on the beach and rescued at two days of age, and Baja was born at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. They are featured in our current show, Camp Critters, in the 3,000-seat Wegeforth Bowl. One-year-old males Ranger and Maverick have started their basic training. Both were stranded on a beach in San Francisco as pups and arrived here in 2013. Cabo is teaching them how to be sea lions, which is very important in their development as they mature. Their "acting" lessons will continue until they are ready for some on-stage experience. We are confident they will be stars one day!
Until recently, sea lions were hunted for their meat, skin, and oil. Some people even used sea lion whiskers for pipe cleaners! Many sea lion populations were wiped out as a result. Steller’s sea lions are endangered, possibly due to the effects of commercial fisheries on their prey species. They were also accidentally killed when caught in commercial fishing nets and were shot on purpose by fishermen who believed the sea lions damage their nets. Protective zones and other measures around known Steller’s sea lion rookeries have been implemented. Other sea lion species are experiencing declines as well, for many of the same reasons. Today, all sea lion species are under the protection of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
There were over 700 strandings of young sea lions from Washington State to Baja California, Mexico, in 2013, an indication that something unusual is going on in the ocean. Young sea lions typically leave their mother and go out on their own between eight months and one year of age, but if they are weaned early or orphaned, they may not have learned the skills needed to hunt for fish on their own. Scientists are looking at what role pollution may play in these strandings.
A neurotoxin called domoic acid is produced by algae during algae blooms and is called a red tide. Fish eat the algae, and sea lions and other marine animals eat the fish. High levels of domoic acid can lead to lethargy, seizures, and death. And pollution may have a significant role in more of these toxic algae blooms occurring. That’s why it’s so important to keep pollution and trash out of the ocean, and to recycle plastic. There is a correlation between NOT recycling and the emergence of excess domoic acid in marine animals, a documented connection between animal populations and pollution.
You can help all sea lions by keeping plastic items out of our oceans! The plastic rings around six-pack cans can be deadly for sea lions and other marine animals that may swallow them.