Finale, a California sea lion and one of the last patients of 2013, gets some sun in one of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center's rehab rooms. (Don Leach / January 8, 2014)

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Whizzing drills and pounding hammers have mostly replaced yelping sea lions these days at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

Staff and volunteers who help rehabilitate sick and injured pinnipeds were caring for only three sea lions the first week of the new year, a far cry from the hundreds in the first half of 2013.

The Laguna Canyon Road center is embarking on an expansion that will add a new intensive care unit, public restroom, multipurpose room and an observation deck. Crews have been putting down roofing shingles, painting outdoor trim and preparing to install drywall.

The center is also adding a formal gift shop to replace the current kiosk.

Selling merchandise is a primary source of revenue for the center, a nonprofit that relies otherwise on donations, said Melissa Sciacca, director of development.

Work should be done by next month — in time for the round of visiting sea lions expected in spring.

California sea lion pups usually start weaning from their mothers at age 6 months, which aligns with the period each spring when animals begin turning up on the sand, Sciacca said.

"Animals [who wash ashore] haven't shown proficiency to survive in the wild," Sciacca said. "Some animals are affected by injury — they will get tangled in a fish line or have bite wounds."

Record numbers of malnourished and dehydrated sea lions washed ashore on Orange County beaches in 2013. Mammal center personnel rescued 372 animals last year.

The facility topped out at an "overwhelming" 167 sea lions at one time, Sciacca said.

During a particularly challenging period, the center fielded more than 100 calls and performed 18 to 20 rescues a day.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Department declared the mass strandings an "unusual mortality event," one of only 60 such declarations issued since 1991, according to the NOAA website.

More rescues than usual

"[Unusual mortality events] send a signal the environment is a little out of balance," said Keith Matassa, the center's executive director.

Orange County reported 320 stranded seas lions from January to May 2013 compared with 63 for the same period in 2012, according to the NOAA website.

Scientists haven't pinpointed a definitive cause for the mass strandings, but one theory relates to the distances sea lions need to travel to eat certain types of fish, if the fish can be found at all.

"The fish they find might not have as much energy, so the mothers' milk may not be as caloric," Matassa said. "[Scientists] are still investigating."

Matassa, 50, was hired in February, bringing more than 27 years of experience with marine mammals in leadership positions. He previously worked at the University of New England's Marine Animal Rehabilitation Center.

He had witnessed mass strandings but never at the level he saw last year in Orange County.

"My biggest job was making sure the staff didn't burn out," Matassa said. "Luckily, I had such a well-trained staff."