“Please release me, let me go/For I don’t [need] you anymore”…and that’s a good thing, if you’re a sea lion

Story and photos by LYNETTE BRASFIELD

Early Saturday morning, Cabo, a sea lion rescued at Salt Creek on Sept 30 then weighing 26 pounds (now 77 pounds), and Heartbreaker, a fur seal found at Capo Beach on Oct 5, (then 13 pounds and now 31 pounds), took their leave from Laguna Beach to return to their ocean homes. 

Both had spent months recuperating from illness or injury at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. They reentered the Pacific waters at Aliso Beach.

Saying goodbye to these creatures was both heart-wrenching and heartwarming for PMMC staff and volunteers.

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Heartbreaker makes a fast break toward the ocean

Robb Mead, volunteer, confided that he thought Heartbreaker would be nervous and slow to go – but no, Heartbreaker (so named because she was rescued on the day of Tom Petty’s death) took one look at the ocean and made a beeline (a sea-line?) for the waves. 

And then she was gone without so much as a farewell flap of her front flippers. 

Cabo, larger and more indolent by nature, took a little longer to consider his options after leaving his crate. He paused halfway to freedom. 

If there’d been a thought-bubble above his head, I imagine it would have read something like, this: “Hmm. From what I hear, with freedom comes responsibility…I could continue to be hand-fed and protected from predators, play with my pinniped pals and enjoy a fancy private pool back at the PMMC – but, hmm, on the other flipper…” 

Cabo gazed at the foamy waves shouldering their way to shore.

He flopped a few feet forward. His whiskers shivered. His nose rose.

He flopped a few feet forward. His whiskers shivered. His nose rose.

And now I pictured this in Cabo’s thought-bubble: “FISH!

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Cabo makes up his mind: I must go down to the sea again

And off he galumphed, into the waves, where not five minutes later, watchers spotted him with a silvery fish flailing in his mouth.

Even then, Cabo continued to hang around in the shallows. For a long time, he gyred and gimbled in the waves, putting on a show of reluctance, maybe as a tribute to the hard workers at PMMC, until finally he headed north, where, amazingly, we think we saw him later greeting the anti-offshore-drilling protestors off Main Beach.

What an awesome and emotional experience that was, to see these creatures back in their environment and to watch two dolphins come within 20 feet of the shore as though to welcome them home.

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Kristi and Ava Boyd, Emileigh and Shawnna Saldana

Shawnna Saldana, her daughter Emileigh (11), and Kristi Boyd with daughter Ava (11) were deeply touched by the experience. The foursome had spent the previous day at the PMMC.

Emileigh’s mom began to tell me about a particularly persistent pinniped, but Emileigh felt that not enough details were included, so, being a natural storyteller, she took over the tale.

“There was this sea lion that kept coming back every time they released him. So they took him to the Channel Islands 300 miles out and left him there but by the time they got back to Laguna he was already back here to greet them,” Emileigh explained.

“He jumped onto the boat and tried to get into his crate. They saw that he had a cut under his flipper probably from a propeller. So they took care of him and released him again but he kept coming back.”

(My notes are somewhat illegible here, but I think I got the the gist of the story.)

Catlike behavior explained?

Emileigh and Ava also told me about an interesting character currently in residence at the PMMC (along with 12 other patients).

“He doesn’t realize he’s a sea lion,” they said. “He plays with his fish before eating them.”

Well, he is a sea lion. Maybe it’s the feline DNA in him?

They shook their heads.

“No, he also twists around and around like an otter!” they said.

(That I can’t explain. Maybe he’s just a natural mimic?) 

Lisa Smith with daughter Jane (5) came all the way from Salt Lake City to see the release. They too had visited at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center the previous day.

“We have a lot of stuffed animals to take home,” Lisa said. 

Jane said, “It was a lot of fun to see the sea lions play in the water.”

And now, to see them playing in the biggest pool of all.

Heartbreaker, Cabo, stay safe out there. We care about you.

Volunteer Robb Mead encourages visitors to PMMC to meet the remaining recovering patients, who will no doubt soon be saying, as the late author Douglas Adams might suggest, “So long, and thanks for all the fish.” 

PMMC is open every day from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. at 20612 Laguna Canyon Road. Phone number is 949 494 3050.