Across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco lies The Marine Mammal Center. It is a hospital for injured sea mammals, where they heal the animals and teach us how to help.
The staff of veterinarians, marine professionals, and volunteers rescue and rehabilitate injured animals, then return them to the sea. In addition, they educate the public on what to do if you find an injured sea animal, and other practicalities. Conducting scientific research is also on their agenda, important to advancing global ocean conservation.
Marine Mammal Center’s website — loaded with facts and information about their organization, marine mammals, and ocean conservation.
The Center is currently closed to the public due to Covid, but there are virtual tours and online programs until public gathering becomes safe again. We visited in 2018. Individuals can take a tour ($10/person), amble on their own, visit the science rooms and outdoor hospital. School and group tours are also offered.
The facility is recently built (2009), employing green technology, and sits on a picturesque mountaintop in the Marin Headlands, outside of Sausalito, California.
Whether we live by the sea or not, most of us are aware of the perils and dangers our marine mammals endure. We read about beached whales, rafts of polluting plastic bags floating in the ocean, or the latest oil tanker spills — all of which add to sea mammal distress.
Additionally, the planet’s warming temperatures associated with climate change continue to distress our ocean inhabitants in a myriad of ways. Warming water temperatures affect prey availability, can alter migration routes, increase toxic algae, and more.
Despite all these harrowing occurrences, there are ways we can all help to make the ocean a clean, safe place for thriving sea mammals.
Marine mammals are similar to humans in that they are: warm-blooded, have fur or hair, breathe air through the lungs, bear live young, and nurse their young with milk from mammary glands. The difference is that marine mammals live all or part of their life in the ocean. Their similarity to us is what attracts many people to sea mammals.
Sea mammals include: pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, fur seals and walruses), cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), sea otters, and others.
Injured sea animals brought to the Marine Mammal Center suffer from many life-threatening conditions. Sea lions are the most commonly rescued species, often entangled in fish netting or plastic trash, or suffering from the ingestion of toxic algae.
After an animal is brought to the Center, veterinarians diagnose and treat the animal, and rehabilitation begins in these units pictured below. This is the hospital section of the Marine Mammal Center.
The Center also has science rooms with touchable sea lion fur, marine mammal skeletons and skulls, as well as videos and other interesting and educational sea information.
The northern elephant seal is the Center’s second-most commonly rescued species. The pups are often stranded; washed off shore in a storm, and separated from their mother.
These are healthy elephant seals, protected on the coast in Southern California.
Diseases, entanglement, malnutrition, toxicosis, or injury are common diagnoses. The list of ailments is a long one. For more info, visit the Center’s website page with the diagnosis for each animal they have tended.
The most important thing you can do when you find an ailing marine mammal, is not touch it. Every ocean or marine mammal organization in the world says this. Call professional sea mammal rescuers.
Sea mammal pups are often left alone, while their mother is out catching fish. Usually she comes back with fish to feed her pup. But if the pup has been removed by a well-intentioned person, the pup has been forever separated from its mother. Thus separated, the pups do not get proper weaning, and have not yet learned how to protect themselves.
For contacting a marine mammal rescuer, this link is helpful for United States citizens, but there are also numerous websites for many countries. There are websites, apps, maps, links, organizations, dedicated professionals and volunteers all across the world.
Last year a friend of mine was hiking on California’s Sonoma Coast when she and her husband came upon an emaciated unresponsive harbor seal pup on the trail. Experienced hikers and naturalists, they knew what to do. They knew not to touch the animal, and immediately called the Marine Mammal Center. A designated rescuer in the area was summoned, and came right away.
The rescuer, a volunteer, was without her partner that day, and enlisted and deputized my friends, and the three of them were able to net the pup and carry it up the embankment to her car. The rescuer then drove the pup to the hospital, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. My friends were rewarded with getting to name the pup, and were later able to track the pup’s health via the Marine Mammal Center’s website. It was a happy ending — the pup survived and was eventually released back into the ocean.
There are many ways to integrate ocean conservation into our lifestyle, travel plans, and home life. This website lists numerous elements of marine conservation, and organizations you can access: Marine Conservation Wikipedia.
Those adorable sea otters in the aquarium windows where we all clamor to watch, the whales that many of us are thrilled to see, hear, and photograph, the barking sea lions we can hear from a cliffside. They thrill us, warm our hearts.
Thank heaven for the professionals, students, and volunteers who have devoted their lives to protecting the sea creatures, and educating all of us on how to perpetuate sea mammal existence.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.