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Animal center saving starving, battered sea lions

In a normal winter, this is the slow season for the Friends of the Sea Lion Marine Mammal Center here, a time to prepare for the busy weeks of spring and summer when the bulk of the youngest of the creatures come ashore in need of nurturing, food and rest.

But this is an El Nino winter, and it seems nothing is as it should be.Around this time last year, the center, about 75 minutes south of Los Angeles, had seven sea lions to care for and eventually release. Today, there are 73, most of them weak and underweight young pups that have been beached and battered by the storms of El Nino.

"This is very rare for this time of year," said Michele Hunter, the senior animal care supervisor at the center.

Filled to capacity, the center stopped taking in new sea lions on Feb. 4. Often when the sea lions come in, they have to be wrapped in blankets because they are cold and skinny. Once they begin recovering, they can be moved into the center's pools.

El Nino, the huge body of warm water in the Pacific that has altered weather conditions around the world, has beaten up on the sea lions and their cousins in several different ways. It has made the winds and the waves meaner, the ocean currents stronger. And the waters off California are five degrees warmer than normal, said Ann Bull, the center director, so much of the fish population that the sea lions rely on has left the area in search of colder waters.

To feed their pups, the mothers have had to spend more time and energy searching for food.

"A lot of the pups were starving to death because they weren't getting enough milk," Joe Cordaro, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In a normal year, about 1,500 seals and sea lions end up on the beaches statewide. This year, Cordaro is predicting at least twice that number.