Among the winners of the 2015 Ocean Art Underwater Photography Contest — a prestigious competition developed and produced by the Underwater Photography Guide — was an image of a California sea lion chomping on a giant fish.
Photographer Ralph Pace snapped this picture in the waters of Nine Mile Bank in San Diego, California.
At first the photograph appears normal — sea lions are predators after all, who regularly snack on many different kinds of fish.
But the image tells a much grimmer story. The sea lion is eating a giant Mola mola, also known as a sunfish. This is unusual because these giant, bony fish are known to be extremely tough-skinned and hard to wrangle and eat. They typically weigh about one ton — about the weight of a moose.
But with warmer than normal waters in the Pacific Ocean in the past two years — which has worsened due to the natural ocean-warming weather phenomenon known as El Niño — the California’s sea lions’ prey are swimming north to cooler waters.
This means that sea lions are forced to eat things they don’t normally eat, such as tough, unruly sunfish.
California’s sea lions have been struggling for years. In the six months between January and June 2015, an unprecedented 3,000 emaciated and starving sea lion pups washed up onto California’s beaches. The culprit? Lack of food due to a warm “blob” of ocean waters in the Pacific Ocean, National Geographic reports.
Al Jazeera America reports that The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito near San Francisco counted a staggering 4,200 stranded California sea lions in 2015, the worst the center has seen in their 40-year history.
And it’s only likely to get worse, as the water-warming El Niño effect is likely to stretch into 2016.
“If it continues, if this is the new normal, the sea lion population and the fur seal population in California are going to have severe drops in their overall population,” Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at the Marine Mammal Center told Al Jazeera America. “… they’re going to have to adapt.”