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Sea lion found near Tracy freeways returned to coast

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The California Highway Patrol and San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office were called upon to help a wayward sea lion near Interstates 5 and 205 east of Tracy on Sunday morning.

CHP Sgt. Robert Rickman, who is also Tracy’s mayor, said people started calling the highway patrol around 6 a.m. about the sea lion wandering in the freeway median and then the shoulder south of Paradise Cut.

“You don’t get many calls of a seal on the freeway in the valley,” Rickman said. “We were thinking it’s probably a different animal than a seal. It was something we didn’t expect.”

An officer who was sent to look for the animal found it down the embankment near some trees. Additional officers were called, and Rickman said they had to steer the sea lion away from the freeway traffic.

An animal control officer from the sheriff’s office tried to corral the sea lion and called The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. The center sent people with a net and a crate to capture the 200-pound animal. After it was safely in the crate, six people carried it back up the embankment.

“In my 24 years, I’ve never seen this in the valley,” Rickman said. “You see them in the rivers every once in a while, but never on the freeway.”

Dr. Shawn Johnson, vice president of veterinary medicine and science at the center, said in a statement that the wanderer, dubbed Gilligan, had been identified as a subadult male California sea lion and appeared to be in good condition. 

Veterinarians performed an admission exam Monday morning at the center’s hospital. They placed Gilligan under anesthesia while they checked his vital organs with an ultrasound and took a series of skull radiographs to look for signs of bullet trauma. None was found. They also drew blood for further testing to look for any health abnormalities.

Experts at the center noted that Gilligan was very active, showed appropriate cognitive awareness, and was very vocal — all positive signs for a sea lion of his age. Male sea lions are classified as “subadults,” a stage between juveniles and adults, when they are 4 to 8 years old.

Gilligan initially spent time in one of the center’s intensive care quarantine pens, where veterinarians gave him bagged fluids to help boost his hydration. He was then moved to a larger rehabilitation pool pen, where he was fed a diet of sustainably caught herring.

Johnson indicated that he might have strayed inland while looking for food.

“Our experts are seeing a number of transient male California sea lions like Gilligan frequent the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta system in pursuit of food ahead of their journey south to the Channel Islands for breeding season,” Johnson said. “It’s likely that this sea lion took a wrong turn and got lost following a potential food source. Thanks to our first responders and the support of the California Highway Patrol and San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department, this animal has a second chance to return to his ocean home.”

On Thursday afternoon, Gilligan was released safely back into the ocean at Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands.

He isn’t the first sea mammal to be spotted near Tracy.

In February 2007, the Tracy Press reported on an adult sea lion found in a dairy shed outside of Tracy. That sea lion was also taken to the Marine Mammal Center but had to be euthanized after it developed brain damage from swimming through toxic algae.

Later that year, in November, a fur seal pup waddled up to the Tracy Animal Shelter on Arbor Road. Staff members at the Marine Mammal Center said it had been tagged by researchers in the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara that summer.

Anyone who sees a seal or sea lion in distress, near Tracy or elsewhere in the area, can call The Marine Mammal Center’s rescue hotline at 415-289-SEAL (7325). The center checks on such animals and, if necessary, sends trained responders to rescue them.

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