When Del Mar lifeguards found him on a Thursday in late January, the young sea lion with a cloudy left eye quietly laid his head on a rock.

They could tell Rocky – as he’d later be called – wasn’t well. Sea lions are typically lively. This one was sluggish.

The lifeguards called SeaWorld San Diego’s stranded animal rescue team, a group that rehabilitated almost 440 marine animals last year amid a spike in ailing young sea lions along the coast.

SeaWorld says it typically rescues 100 to 150 per year, plus another 200 to 300 birds and a handful of other animals. SeaWorld has touted its rescue and research operations in recent months as part of its effort to combat the backlash associated with “Blackfish,” a documentary that blasts the company’s confinement of killer whales. Fans of the movie criticize SeaWorld for focusing more on profits than on efforts to protect orcas and other marine animals in the wild.

SeaWorld contends that it invests heavily in conservation and points to its rescues as proof.

And in the past year, the animals that have benefited most from SeaWorld’s care are emaciated California sea lions like Rocky.

We Stand Up For You. Will You Stand Up For Us?

This week, SeaWorld stranded animal coordinator Jody Westberg shared Rocky’s story with photographer Sam Hodgson and I as we tagged along for the end of his journey with SeaWorld.

On that day in late January, Rocky barely protested as a few rescue workers and lifeguards loaded him into a cage, Westberg recalled.

When he arrived at SeaWorld, caretakers tested Rocky’s blood and placed him in a small pool where they could watch him around the clock.

It looked like this.

SeaWorld workers soon discovered Rocky was mildly anemic and suffered from some mental issues. They estimated he was about 8 to 10 years old.

They named him Rocky after he vomited up four pounds of stones within his first five days at SeaWorld.

Team members focused on helping Rocky eat more fish. At 312 pounds, he was lighter than most sea lions his age.

They slowly increased his meals each day to prevent him from getting sick, building up to about 30 pounds of fish each day.

They also put him in a pool with other sea lions.

Rocky needed to learn to catch his prey again, and to compete for it. He needed to regain the necessary strength and energy to swim again.

Within about six weeks, Rocky was besting the other sea lions at SeaWorld’s rehabilitation center. He gained nearly 80 pounds.

That showed Westberg that Rocky was ready to return to the wild.

SeaWorld’s rescue team sometimes boards a boat and returns marine mammals directly to the ocean but Westberg decided the beach at Border Field State Park would work for Rocky.

There’s a sea lion rookery in the area and plenty of fish to be caught.

So on Tuesday, at about 2:30 p.m., Westberg and other SeaWorld staffers loaded Rocky into a large crate and placed him in the back of a big white truck.

Rocky, who is now about 390 pounds, squirmed and barked as he awaited the roughly 28-mile drive south.

At the beach, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer, Westberg and another SeaWorld employee used a lift to lower Rocky’s crate to the ground.

He waddled out without hesitation.

He headed swiftly toward the ocean.

Then he started swimming.

He slowly disappeared into the Pacific Ocean.

Westberg was surprised at first. Rocky didn’t even take a moment to look around. He went straight to the water. He knew what to do.

The crew watched as he swam away, catching occasional glimpses of Rocky’s head as he swam through the tide.

After a few minutes, they loaded up the truck  and drove back to SeaWorld.

Westberg, who supervised Rocky’s care for weeks, wasn’t emotional as she drove away.

“We’ve done our job,” she said. “They’re getting their second chance and it’s up to them.”

After one animal is returned to the wild, it’s time to focus on others that still need help, she said.

Within the last week, the SeaWorld team rescued these two young harbor seal pups.

One is badly swollen after an injury to its neck area. The other constantly suckles at its companion, instinctively hoping to find its mother’s milk.

SeaWorld rescuers watched both the seals for hours before taking them to SeaWorld.

SeaWorld workers wants to ensure mothers haven’t simply left their pups behind for a short time before they recover them, Westberg said.

These seal pups’ mothers never returned. SeaWorld staffers have since used tubes to nourish them. They’re working to transition them to bottles soon.

Then there’s the older sea lion pup with a large abscess under one ear. SeaWorld workers dressed the wound so they can easily flush it out.

SeaWorld says almost all the animals it rescues eventually go back to the wild but there are some exceptions.

Take Bruce, a large green sea turtle who now lives in the park.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers brought Bruce to SeaWorld in 2011 after they found him with cuts on his flippers and tail and a cracked shell. X-rays also revealed four shotgun pellets lodged in his neck, SeaWorld spokesman David Koontz said.

SeaWorld returned Bruce to the wild after several months of rehabilitation.

About five months later, rescuers found Bruce tangled in fishing line. He’d also ingested multiple candy wrappers.

SeaWorld rehabilitated Bruce again, Koontz said, but park and NOAA experts decided the wild was too treacherous for him.

SeaWorld agreed to continue caring for Bruce and he now lives in SeaWorld’s Turtle Reef exhibit.

How much efforts to rescue animals like Bruce and Rocky cost SeaWorld — and how that spending stacks up against overall revenue — isn’t clear.

Koontz declined to reveal a dollar figure, and said the company’s publicly traded status keeps it from elaborating on its financial reports.

SeaWorld’s financial reports and U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings don’t shed any light, either. They simply note that the company has helped more than 23,000 ill, injured or abandoned animals in the last four decades.

Some bloggers and the Oceanic Preservation Society, a marine conservation nonprofit, have suggested SeaWorld has spent less than 1 percent of its annual revenue on rescue and conservation efforts in the last decade. That conclusion appears to be based on documentation from the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, a nonprofit affiliated with the company that offers grants to outside organizations that  work on animal conservation, research and rescue efforts.

The group has granted more than $10 million to more than 500 worldwide projects since it was created in 2003. Beneficiaries have included the World Wildlife FundSea to Shore Alliance and many others.

But Koontz said the foundation isn’t subsidizing SeaWorld’s rescue efforts.

“We fund that program ourselves,” the spokesman said.

All photos by Sam Hodgson.

This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – SeaWorld San Diego, By the Numbers – and the next in our series   So-Called Blackfish Bill Could Devastate SeaWorld.

    This article relates to: News, Quest, Quest: SeaWorld, SeaWorld, Share

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about nonprofits and local progress in addressing causes like homelessness and Balboa Park’s needs. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    Jeff Carr
    Jeff Carr

    Yes---the rescue and research aspect of Sea World's work is admired --- and not the issue. It does not justify their use of orca and other sea life for entertainment exploitation.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Nice presentation of the Rescue side. The amount of money, even if 1%, on conservation side is still monies put towards organizations and projects that are involved in the conservation mission.

    I didn't realize NOAA was part of The Dept of Commerce.

    jeff scott
    jeff scott subscriber

    This is a perfect example of how enviro groups often times have conflicting agendas.   Why they would choose to pick on Sea World is beyond me.  They do plenty for the habitat and environment.   People can look at Orcas on TV all day long and not really know how magnificent these animals are.   Its worth keeping a few in captivity... like we do with most exotic animals,  so as to better educate the public.

    barb graham
    barb graham subscriber

    @jeff scott  Rehabbing sea lions is like rehabilitating and releasing rats. The creatures who can't make it, who aren't victims of humanity, should be left to carry on the food chain.

    Did you go see Gigi the grey whale? I did. And so did thousands of other people, which suggests maybe they could can the stupid trained animal acts and replace them with informational programs featuring creatures who have been rescued and will be released.

    People "pick on" Sea World because of their history of working with orcas and lying to the public. They were never supposed to turn into a theme park with rides, but what are those towers in Mission Bay, huh?

    Rides, that's what. And if you can find anything educational besides the labels on the fish tanks, you're looking real hard.

    What can you say about a corporation that wiped out the last colony of burrowing owls in Mission Bay to expand their parking lot?

    Environmentally concerned, would you say?

    This just in,  Assemblyman Richard Bloom of Hollywood is proposing a bill banning trained whale shows. That's a start. To spend one's entire life in a teeny concrete tank, I'd be snapping up trainers like popcorn.

    jeff scott
    jeff scott subscriber

    @barb graham  

    Thanks for proving my point,  you denigrate one specie, a protected specie I might ad,  to justify your extremist-enviro-agenda.

     You are the problem, not Sea World.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @barb grahamI’m not a fan of Sea World, but I have to comment on the state legislature’s consideration of a bill to ban their Orca shows.  This is so “California”, micromanaging everything the legislature can get it’s hands on, this time because of a movie.  Is it any wonder the state is broke?

    This reminds me of the effort to “impeach” Dan Richards, chair of the state Fish and Game Commission, for the audacity to actually hunt something.  In Richards‘ case, it was a totally legal mountain lion hunt in Idaho, one of the several Western states that find it sensible to control these predators through periodic hunts to prevent their proliferation in the wild.  Our piniped fiasco in La Jolla shows how California handles this sort of stuff.  

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    @barb graham  

    "They were never supposed to turn into a theme park with rides, but what are those towers in Mission Bay, huh?"

    That is a big "so what"

    Expanding ones venue to tap into other revenue streams by appealing to a broader  audience is called.......good business.

    barb graham
    barb graham subscriber

    @jeff scott  You do know that protected isn't the same as endangered or threatened, don't you?

    In the 1960s there were roughly 30,000 sea lions on the west coast. Now there are over 300,000.  So, yeah, they're like seagulls or rats or roaches. Or humans. Given the opportunity and no predators (since we killed off the sharks) their numbers exploded.

    So I submit sir, that YOU are the problem, because your ignorance is shared by people who determine policy. Policy based on ignorance is never a good thing.

    Representative Bloom has the right idea. People who think it's okay to capture animals out of the wild and use them to profit from their entertainment value are the problem too. So look in your mirror and say 'hello' to Mr. Problem.

    barb graham
    barb graham subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw @barb graham  It's not "because of a movie" Mr. Bradshaw, it's because this is the right thing to do.

    Enslavement isn't the same as hunting, and those pens the Orcas are forced to live in is comparable to stuffing you into a very small travel trailer and locking the door so you can never leave unless you're needed to crank the organ grinder's instrument.

    Believe me, if I could bust a cap in every sea lion harassing a fishing boat, I would do it. Again, before those stupid things were protected as a sort of bulk bargain deal covering all marine mammals, there were only a few nuisance dogs hassling the boats, because it was legal to shoot them. Sea lions are smart, they know the difference between a gun and a useless seal bomb. The latter doesn't work. 

    Interestingly, MOST of the sea lions left the boats alone. They are smart.

    Speaking of the difference between hunting and captivity, I thought it was stupid to can Dan the Man Richards for a cougar hunt. It's legal in other parts of the country, yet here you cannot even kill one legally in Montana and bring any part of it home. (So we had to eat it in Washington, quite good, very dense and mild.)

    I'm in favor of hunting. I've been into falconry and done lots of fishing. I am not in favor of captive large mammals in tiny pens forced to dance for our amusement.

    barb graham
    barb graham subscriber

    @Mark Giffin @barb graham  It's called "Lying to the city and the people and doing exactly what they swore they'd never do." Good business?

    Sure, if you think lying is a good business model, in which case I would not wish to do business with you. Or Sea World.

    jeff scott
    jeff scott subscriber

    @barb graham,

    You have me pigeonholed all wrong.  I whole heartily agree with your views on sea lions.  I also see no difference between putting a lion behind a fence at the Zoo and breeding a few Orcas to entertain.    I see Sea World, The Zoo,  etc as helping people appreciate wild animals, ocean habitat, ocean environment. You see it differently, obviously.

     Difference between you and me is I am not emotionally invested.   

    "...ignorance is shared by people who determine policy. "

    And You are determining policy, and it is based on ignorance of the bigger picture, not to mention anytime an activist group gets googley-gaga over something they always exaggerate the truth, and you are likely ignoring this exaggeration.

      What you can't see is you are no different than those who are fanatical about protecting sea-dogs, same thing...different animal.

    jeff scott
    jeff scott subscriber

    @barb graham ,

    Blame the city, they are the ones who granted them permission, heck. they even gave sea world a special permit exemption to build something higher than 2-stories west of the I-5......

      And you can blame the DFG if you think our kelp has been over fished, they are the ones who let commercial fisherman bottom-trawl our kelp line way into the 90's.