Get ready to have your heart broken.
Since the beginning of 2015, reports out of California have looked bad for the sea lion: A seemingly endless stream of sick and starving pups were washing up on shore without their mothers. It's normal for this to happen in moderation. Sometimes the odd pup will be weaned too early, and find itself in the open ocean without the strength or skill to feed itself.
But this year more than 1,450 pups washed ashore. More than five times the number rescued by this point in 2013 have turned up, and things are so dire that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has warned California residents that calls to the authorities about pup sightings may go unanswered. Sea World has shut down its sea lion shows to donate experts to the cause, but they still can't keep up with the flood of helpless, underweight babies.
Experts think that climate change may be the culprit.
When water gets warmer -- as it has this year, because of the El Niño weather pattern this winter -- food for sea lions gets scarce. That probably means that mama sea lions spend more time away from their pups looking for food to keep themselves alive. When left alone and starving for long periods, sea lion pups are more likely to wean themselves early.
And when they leave home, they're doing so not just too young to fend for themselves, but already hungry and desperate.
“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,” Justin Viezbicke, a coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s California Stranding Network, told the Associated Press.
Even if rescue groups manage to save most of the pups, this is part of a troubling trend. It's the third year in a row that the pups have washed up in record-breaking numbers, and they show up earlier and earlier.