Rigby, a sea lion at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

Rigby, a sea lion at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. (Photo by Wendy Leeds / February 11, 2013)

A trend of sea lion pups becoming malnourished along the Orange County coast has led to an uptick in the number of animals admitted to a local marine mammal center, according to experts.

As of Monday, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center on Laguna Canyon Road is caring for 38 sea lions, up from six in January 2012, said Melissa Sciacca, the center's director of development.

Ten of those 38 animals were delivered from another marine life center.

All of the sea lions are pups between six to seven months old that are trying to wean from their mothers, Sciacca said.

She isn't alarmed by the increase even though it's happened earlier than is typical.

"Normally we start seeing pups in March or April," Sciacca said. "This year we're starting to see more in January. It's too early to predict whether the season will be busier overall."

The center has held as many as 108 animals at once, she added.

Most of the animals are malnourished and dehydrated, not injured, she said.

Sea lions get their water from the fish they eat. If they are not eating, then they aren't getting water, Sciacca said.

The reason the pups are not eating is that they are having trouble finding food, said Sarah Wilkin, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marine mammal stranding coordinator for California.

"The yearlings have less flexibility and aren't as creative [to find food compared to older sea lions]," Wilkin said.

The current trend appears to be centered in Orange County coastal waters, she said.

A similar spike of malnourished and dehydrated animals occurred in March and April of 2009.

Winds weren't blowing as strong as usual, resulting in less available food, Wilkin said. She and colleagues will be looking at ocean temperatures and winds, and measuring the amount of algae in the coming weeks to better understand this year's uptick.

Sciacca suggests calling the center at (949) 494-3050 to report the location of a sick or injured sea lion.

One sea lion, named Rigby, was found hiding in a flower pot on the deck of a Capistrano Beach home. He weighed 30 pounds and was dehydrated, malnourished and had patches of tar on his body. He remains in intensive care.

"The important thing is to keep your distance," Sciacca said. "They are federally protected by law."

bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce