For six marine mammals, the rush of saltwater over mossy green rocks and the spray of the surf must have been a familiar sensation as they left the realm of people behind.
"We're giving them a second chance they never would have had," said Susan Andrews, manager of the Marine Mammal Center's Monterey Bay Operations in Moss Landing.
On Thursday, Andrews and six volunteers released one sea lion and five elephant seal pups on a beach at Point Lobos State Reserve south of Carmel. The animals spent a month in rehabilitation after being found malnourished on area beaches.
"Somehow, they got off to a bad start," Andrews said. "We got them at six weeks old."
The Moss Landing facility is a triage center for marine mammals found sick or injured. After initial treatment, animals are trucked to the main hospital in Sausalito for more extensive care.
"The first 24 hours is critical," Andrews said. "If they come in malnourished and dehydrated, we give them fluids, electrolytes and vitamins. Maybe even a little Kaopectate if they have an upset tummy."
Andrews said the animals are initially given a mixture of mother's milk-substitute and ground-up fish before they are taught to eat fish. They eventually learn by having a fish dangled in front of them.
"When they're ready, we put live fish in a pool and the seals catch and eat them," she said. "We teach them to track fish. Before release, they are also given a veterinary exam and blood test."
Two animals were picked up on beaches in Monterey County.
"These animals should be over 200 pounds, and when they came to us they weighed only 70 pounds," Andrews said. "They're supposed to lie on the beach and grow teeth and muscles before playing in tide pools and entering the water. They didn't have that option."
The pups may have been separated from their mothers too early, or the mother couldn't produce sufficient milk.
"Usually the mother separates from the pup at four weeks old," Andrews said. "Pups have to learn on their own by trial and error, but they need the blubber layer to do it."
Andrews said Point Lobos was selected as a release point because of its secluded beaches.
She expected the sea lion to move into the water faster than the larger elephant seals. Sure enough, upon release, the sea lion moved steadily seaward and disappeared under small waves.
The elephant seals, slower and more ungainly on land, didn't seem as sure, and sat on rocks in the shallows in the incoming tide, gazing at the spectators. Volunteers gently used hand-held wooden shields to coax the animals into the water.
Nancy Williams, a Marine Mammal Center volunteer from Santa Cruz, said adult elephant seals spend little time on land, except to mate. The males can weigh 2 tons at maturity and reach 18 feet long. Females weigh up to 1,200 pounds.
"Usually when we first get them they're in bad shape," Williams said. "So it's beautiful to see them fattened up like this and ready to go."
Andrews said natural hazards the animals will face at sea include white sharks and killer whales.
"But people are what we're most concerned with," she said. "We hope they stay away from people once they're out in the wild, and we need people to respect them."