Ranch hands make unexpected discovery: a sea lion

Hoppie is on his way to The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, a two hour drive from where he was found.
Hoppie is on his way to The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, a two hour drive from where he was found. San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

The lost sea lion at the center of a rescue in the San Joaquin Valley last month definitely earned his name, Hoppie.

After all, the sea lion pup had hopped close to a mile from the San Joaquin River before he was discovered at Mape’s Ranch, about eight miles west of Modesto and near the boundary of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge.

Initial reports from authorities incorrectly indicated Hoppie was discovered near the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Los Banos, but he was found farther to the north and west.

“The ranch hands were working in the almond orchard and that’s when they spotted it,” said Eric Hopson, the assistant wildlife refuge manager. “When I found it, it was actively moving along the edge of a farm field road near the almond orchard. The animal had already walked at least half a mile from the river and was obviously confused.”

The ranch hands watched in amazement as a disoriented Hoppie stopped in the almond orchard on Mape’s Ranch to rest. They called their boss, Billy Lyons, the ranch owner’s son, who immediately came over to see the animal that workers originally thought was a sea otter.

“I thought, ‘That’s the biggest sea otter I’ve ever seen,’ ” Lyons recalled Tuesday. “I just couldn’t believe it, to be honest with you. We just stood there and kept an eye to make sure it wouldn’t hurt itself by jumping into one of the underground pipelines.”

Once they identified the animal as possibly a sea lion pup, Lyons contacted Hopson, who then took the next steps by calling the National Marine Fisheries Service in Southern California. The service contacted The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, which rescues and rehabilitates seals and sea lions.

Within an hour, the rescue of Hoppie was underway, but transporting a mammal weighing more than 36 pounds to a facility two hours away would be no easy feat.

The Marine Mammal Center sent a volunteer to meet Hopson at a halfway point – in Dublin. Hopson coaxed the exhausted sea lion into a wire cage inside his truck. “Once he got into the cage, he was so tired he fell asleep right away and was doing some snoring,” he said.

Hopson, who was also partly the inspiration for Hoppie’s name, drove the animal to Dublin, where he moved him into the volunteer’s vehicle. From there, Hoppie was taken to the Sausalito facility.

It’s not known why Hoppie left the river or traveled such a long way on the ground, but without the efforts of Lyons, Hopson and the ranch hands at Mape’s Ranch, he may not have stood a chance of survival.

“He probably would have starved to death. He was already emaciated and lacking in body weight,” Hopson said. “Unless he could find his way back to the river and back to salt water, he would have eventually died a slow death.”

The seal lion pup is also lucky that he turned up at Mape’s Ranch, the massive farming operation located west of Modesto along Highway 132 owned by former state Secretary of Food and Agriculture Bill Lyons Jr. He and his family manage more than 9,500 acres of cattle pasture and crops that also attract migrating waterfowl.

Over the years the family has been repeatedly recognized for its wildlife conservation efforts at the ranch, so Hoppie was in good hands, found by people who knew whom to call.

He is now resting safely at The Marine Mammal Center, where staff are giving him 5 pounds of fish per day and around-the-clock care. The sea lion pup is believed to be less than a year old and could have been recently separated from its mother.

“Hoppie is a very lucky sea lion in so many ways,” Hopson said “I was just part of the process. It was great teamwork all around and a lot of lucky circumstances.”

Hoppie is the second sea lion to be found in the region. In February 2004, a 321-pound sea lion named Chippy was found lounging on a police cruiser and rescued by California Highway Patrol officers. The center also cared for Chippy before returning him to the wild.

The center is caring for 175 animals at its Sausalito complex. The organization said it needs help to continue providing for Hoppie and his pen mates. “It’s about a dollar for a pound of fish,” said Laura Sherr, spokeswoman for the center, adding that many animals also need medical care.

To make a donation to help Hoppie and other sea mammals, contact the center at (415) 289-7325 or go online at www.marinemammal center.org.