No lyin’: Stranded sea lion rescued from California golf course

After ‘very pregnant’ sea lion makes its way inland to Omni La Costa Resort & Spa, SeaWorld San Diego team returns her and pup to the Pacific.


sea lion on a golf course
With help from SeaWorld's rescue team, a golf course superintendent in Carlsbad, Calif., helped a misguided sea lion return to her natural habitat.Photos courtesy of Omni La Costa Resort & Spa

David Smallwood had just adjourned the daily morning meeting with his maintenance team at Omni La Costa Resort & Spa, and crew members were scattering, heading out to their appointed individual tasks, when Smallwood’s radio crackled to life. The voice from the other end belonged to one of the team’s irrigators, en route to hand-water greens.

“He said, ‘Don’t laugh. This is true. There’s a sea lion over by 16 green,’” recalled Smallwood, Omni La Costa’s GCSAA Class A director of agronomy and 19-year association member.<

Despite the irrigator’s entreaty, Smallwood and his staff couldn’t keep a straight face.

“We all looked at each other and cracked up laughing,” Smallwood says. “I thought, ‘This guy’s crazy. It’s not a sea lion.’”

He wasn’t lyin’; ’twas a (sea) lion.

Smallwood and a couple of assistants headed over to the Legend Course’s 16th green, where they found a solitary sea lion, just lyin’ there. What made its appearance so unusual is that, while the Carlsbad, Calif., course is near the ocean, it’s not exactly on it.

“It’s not a call you get often,” Smallwood says. “I’ve seen a lot of animals on the golf course, but this was my first sea lion encounter.”

Technically, it was his first and second — the trespassing sea lion was, even to Smallwood’s untrained eye, very obviously with pup.

“She was just hanging out, and we didn’t know if she was hurt or really why she was there,” he says. “When the sea lion started rolling over, we could see she was very pregnant.”

Omni La Costa is just a short hike from the Pacific Ocean — roughly 3 miles, as the seagull flies. The nearest significant body of water, the Batiquitos Lagoon, abuts La Quinta property, but it would still be quite a haul for our flippered friend, baby bump or no. Smallwood speculates the previous night’s high tide pushed the preggers pinniped through the lagoon and into an adjoining creek that meanders through the course.

Once it was determined she was not injured and merely in the family way, the staff kept an eye on her to keep her safe, and the call went out, first to a local Department of Fish and Wildlife, then to SeaWorld San Diego Animal Rescue. As the SeaWorld team was assessing the situation, the sea lion was living its best life, taking a dip in the creek, rolling around in the fairway and lounging near the 16th green.

sea lion on a golf course
The stranded, pregnant sea lion relaxes on Omni La Costa's green before being returned to the ocean.

“I really thought she was going to have her pups right there,” Smallwood says. “It was pretty wild.”

Before long, the SeaWorld Rescue team arrived.

“Omni La Costa … they were amazing,” said Jeni Smith, SeaWorld Rescue Team supervisor. “A team member escorted us onto the golf course, showed us where to go. The first thing they said was, ‘Are you looking for the sea lion on hole 16?’ I said, ‘I hope so. I hope you don’t have more than one.’”

At first, the team considered steering the sea lion toward the creek and, ultimately, the lagoon. But at low tide, there wasn’t much water in the creek, so the team turned to rescue mode.

“She looked very healthy and very pregnant,” Smith says. “But she looked like she was aware of her surroundings. There didn’t appear to be anything neurological going on with her, but she wasn’t close enough to a water source to find it on her own.”

The team parked its 4X4 on the rough behind the green and, with a little encouragement, managed to corral the sea lion — “She was vocalizing the whole way, like, ‘What the heck is happening?’” Smith says — in a transportation unit, which the truck drove to nearby Carlsbad State Beach.

“We have a great relationship with the lifeguards,” Smith said. “We wanted to pick a spot that’s not super popular with people. The lifeguards escorted us on the beach, and we created a little pathway with trucks and another little lane so people wouldn’t run in front of her. We opened the doors, and she walked onto the beach and right into the ocean.”

Thus, the SeaWorld Animal Rescue Team added to its impressive total of 40,000-plus animal rescues over its 50-plus years. — even if it operates under the radar.

“I didn’t realize,” Smallwood says, “they did animal rescues like that.”

They do, though the Omni La Costa encounter was unusual. “It’s a beautiful golf course,” Smith says, “but we were definitely surprised. It sounds funny: There’s a sea lion on the golf course.”

It is not necessarily, however, the most unusual of their sea lion rescues even this year. A male sea lion shut down a busy freeway east of downtown San Diego in January. That was his second experience beating feet, er, flippers. In November 2021, he was rescued while “walking” along Harbor Island Drive.

He rehabbed at SeaWorld for a bit before being released the second time. The sea lion, nicknamed “Freeway” for his highway high jinks, was spotted inland again, in a storm drain in Logan Heights, about a half mile from the San Diego Harbor. Had he continued up-drain, Freeway could have made it back to the same highway interchange where he was nabbed during his previous foray a-flipper.

While dealing with the Omni La Costa sea lion — dare we dub her “Fairway”? — Smith couldn’t help but think about Freeway.

“The joke was that she was calling (Freeway) on her shellphone,” Smith cracks. “I was on his rescue team twice of his three rescues. That was peculiar. I couldn’t help but think, ‘Oh, my goodness, what are these sea lions doing?’"

Andrew Hartsock is GCM’s senior managing editor