While on a work trip to California’s 20th District last week, I had the unique opportunity to visit The Marine Mammal Center in Moss Landing, California. TMMC’s mission is not only to rescue and rehabilitate sick and injured marine mammals, but also to expand knowledge about them, the ocean ecosystem, and their conservation. TMMC is supported by modern animal care and research facilities, community engagement, and dedicated volunteers. So what does a day in the life of one of these heroes look like?
TMMC’s main hub is in Sausalito, California, about an hour and a half north of the smaller satellite facility at Moss Landing. The Moss Landing site that I visited is designed to provide immediate rescue and support for the Monterey Bay area, and to provide care for the animals until they can be transported north to the main facility and hospital.
I asked to visit The Marine Mammal Center to learn more about what they do there. When I arrived, I was greeted by Juila O’Hern, the facility’s only full-time staff member. Julia had received a call around 6am about a stranded young sea lion in a parking lot near Santa Cruz, in their jurisdiction. Luckily, one TMMC volunteer lives close to where the sea lion was reported, and was able to make a quick pickup (many TMMC volunteers keep basic equipment in their car – nets, crates, and towels – in case they need to respond immediately to a call).
Thus, instead of just receiving a tour of the facility and meeting the staff and volunteers, it seemed I would also get to witness how an animal was brought in and evaluated. Awesome for me; not so awesome for the sea lion.
While we waited and as the morning volunteers arrived, Julia showed me around the building. The waiting area is cozy with marine posters on the walls, places to sit, and a TV. Just like fire responders waiting for a call, sometimes the TMMC volunteers have periods of down time to kill by reading or making food in the kitchen area. Beyond a little window is the dispatch office, an administrative office, and an educational outreach office with large stuffed animals for practicing pole dart tranquilizers (or hugging, either way).
Beyond these rooms in the back part of the building is where all the action happens. In a large garage area, they keep racks and racks of towels and blankets, refrigerators, laundry machines, and rubber overalls and boots to keep clothing clean (I would later see why this was very necessary). Another smaller room serves as a place for weighing out food, storing and measuring medicine and vitamins, and recording stats of the animals they bring in.
Out back, there is an industrial weigh scale, a line of about eight pens for holding animals, a plethora of clean animal kennels of various sizes, and two trucks and a van ready to go to a rescue. There are also shallow pans with eco-friendly disinfectant for the workers to step into before and after approaching the pens, so as not to spread around germs.
Before long, a new truck rolled in and the few of us there got to work. For my part, I kept out of the way.
The volunteer Tuesday crew supervisor that brought in the sea lion, Linda, and an intern, Sarah, unloaded the crate with the sea lion onto the scale. They recorded its weight and would later weigh the empty crate to determine the actual weight of just the animal.
Then they carried the crate over to a prepared pen with a shallow plastic pool of water and a water dish, and set it down inside. When releasing or trying to get an animal to move, they use boards – kind of like riot police – to protect themselves and to create healthy separation between themselves and the animal (the boards also disguise a normal human silhouette, another effort to prevent animals from associating humans with food).
Each animal that is brought to TMMC gets a field number on its documents, but also is given a name. This one was dubbed Early Riser.
Once in the pen, Linda took observations of it through the fence and analyzed its behavior. The eyes can often give clues if the animal is dehydrated – sea lions’ eyes usually stay wet for much longer than the rest of their body.
They look for different clues in different species as well. The whiskers on elephant seals can curl if the animal is dehydrated. Elephant seals also usually have more gunk around their eyes and in their nose than sea lions do. This is due to their deep-diving physiology. Some beach bystanders occasionally mistake this as a sign that the animal has a cold, when really it is normal. In a sea lion, though, this would be a sign that the animal actually is sick.
For behavioral clues, if the animal is lethargic, it may be malnourished and exhausted. If it is shuffling around a lot or waving its head, especially if it is an older animal, it may be suffering effects of Domoic Acid, a neurotoxin released by plankton during algal blooms. Fish eat the plankton, which are eaten by sea lions. This process of bioaccumulation makes animals like sea lions susceptible to harmful algal blooms. Unfortunately, there were a lot of these cases this recent winter when the HABs were particularly strong and long-lasting.
As for Early Riser, he seemed to have slightly labored breathing, and Linda reported some coughing, wheezing, and a sneeze or two on transport. She suspected pneumonia, however full diagnoses are made by trained veterinarians once the animals arrives at the hospital in Sausalito. Luckily, the color of Early Riser’s poo (which had been all over the crate and a little bit on their rubber coveralls) indicated that he had been eating, and didn’t show any immediate signs of ulcers or other problems.
The next step was to call the main MMC office, give them the report, and receive official medicine orders from them. The doctor’s orders were to offer Early Riser a fish, and if he ate it, to give him quarter kilogram of fish with antibiotics.
Linda entered the pen again behind a board and tossed the fish into the shallow pool of water. Volunteers try to feed the animals from behind these boards so the animal doesn’t associate food with humans or get accustomed to them. The goal is to release these animals into the wild after rehabilitation, so they try hard not to let the animal make that association.
There have been many cases of animals that are repeatedly stranded. The causes for this can vary from sickness to injury to unnatural familiarity with humans. TMMC has an unofficial Rule of Three: if an animal is brought to their facility three times, it is considered unreleasable and TMMC will attempt to give it home somewhere else, at an aquarium or similar facility.
Good news for Early Riser – he ate the fish! That meant that he wasn’t having trouble eating, and could easily be given his meds.
By now, more volunteers had shown up, and TMMC received another call about a sea lion spotted alone, acting abnormally and hulled out on Pebble Beach. I was invited to travel down with the team to help evaluate the situation and, if necessary, make a rescue. Of course I said yes.
We drove back down the coastline to a beautiful stretch of beach just south of Monterey, and proceeded to search high and low for the sea lion. I was warned ahead of time that sometimes these calls turned out to be goose chases where they either could not get to the animal or they just couldn’t find it. This time turned out to be the latter. We did find some paw prints on the beach, and deduced that a dog may have scared the sea lion back into the water. This was good news, meaning the sea lion was healthy enough to take that action.
Because we were already in the area, we took a trip to the Coast Guard jetty in Monterey to check on the sea lions that usually hang out on the rocks there. There are sometimes animals that are entangled in fishing wire or other materials that would need a special rescue from a boat to access them. But TMMC volunteers still like to keep tabs on them from the land, and check to see how they are doing.
After a long morning with the MMC folks – and with a bit of a sunburn – I parted ways with them at the jetty, ready for my own lunch (which turned out to be fish as well). I followed up a few days later and learned that Early Riser had been transported up to the main hospital in Sausalito and is recovering. Veterinarians determined that Early Riser was suffering from malnutrition and a mild case of pneumonia. He is currently feeding on his own and being treated with antibiotics. Hopefully, they won’t be receiving another call about him again.
PSA from TMMC: This case is yet another reminder to please “Leave Seals Be.” It’s important that the public maintain a safe distance of at least 50 feet from marine mammals and keep dogs away. They can report sick and injured marine mammals to The Marine Mammal Center by calling 415-289-SEAL (7325).
To learn more about The Marine Mammal Center mission and what they do, visit their website here.
Zoe has an M.S. in Oceanography and a B.S. in Geologic Oceanography from URI, with a minor in Writing and Rhetoric. She was recently a Knauss Marine Policy Fellow in the US House of Representatives, and now work at Consortium for Ocean Leadership. When not writing and editing, Zoe enjoys rowing, rock climbing, skiing, and reading.