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Marine Mammals Along California Coast Rescued in Record Numbers

As a leader in rescue and rehabilitation work, Shedd Aquarium has established partnerships with rescue organizations all over the country to respond to animals in need. This week, we are sharing a guest blog post from our partner – The Marine Mammal Center, the world’s largest rescue and rehabilitation hospital for sick, injured and orphaned marine mammals. Jeff Boehm, DVM, executive director, shares his insight about the joint rescue efforts to provide care for a record number of animals this season.

Crowd of stranded pups
The Marine Mammal Center is caring for a record number of patients, including these California sea lion pups. Credit: Sarah van Schagen © The Marine Mammal Center

Spring has sprung at The Marine Mammal Center, and it brings with it the sounds of hundreds of cackling, barking and squawking seals and sea lions. Why the cacophonous serenade? Spring is always the busiest season at our nonprofit veterinary hospital in Sausalito, California—but this year, we’re seeing a record number of patients.

We’ve rescued about 400 animals already this year, including northern elephant seals, California sea lions, harbor seals and Guadalupe fur seals, and that number is only going to grow.

We attribute this to a number of factors, including peak elephant seal pupping season occurring at the same time that we are getting an unusual influx of young, malnourished sea lions that should still be with their mothers. We are also seeing the effects of a large persistent algal bloom in Monterey Bay that leads to toxicities and subsequent neurological damage in adult sea lions.

Many of these patients are receiving specialized and intensive medical care including antibiotic regimens, IV fluids and even surgery. Every seal and sea lion in our care—right now, that’s more than 200 animals!—must be fed multiple times per day.

And because many of these patients are pups, they must be carefully tube-fed what we call a “fish milkshake,” or a mixture of ground-up fish and formula. Later, we’ll be teaching them how to swallow fish whole and forage on their own in the wild.

But it’s not just the workload that’s impressive right now; it’s the work force.

Working alongside the Center’s staff of veterinarians and animal health technicians are more than 1,100 volunteers who ensure that every last animal is fed and every pen cleaned. During a record-breaking busy season like this, that means working around the clock—with animal care crews who arrive at 7 a.m. overlapping with the crews who arrive at 7 p.m. to start the night shift.

Shedd Aquarium Animal Care Specialist Alicia Atkins (left) and Richard Ferris, a volunteer at The Marine Mammal Center, tube-feed an elephant seal pup at the Center’s hospital in Sausalito, Calif. Credit: Sarah van Schagen © The Marine Mammal Center
Shedd Aquarium Animal Care Specialist Alicia Atkins (left) and Richard Ferris, a volunteer at The Marine Mammal Center, tube-feed an elephant seal pup at the Center’s hospital in Sausalito, Calif. Credit: Sarah van Schagen © The Marine Mammal Center

This year, helping hands have also come from as far as Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Senior Veterinary Technician Bernadette Maciol and Animal Care Specialist Alicia Atkins have helped lighten the work load over the last two weeks while gaining valuable experience working with wild animals. This week, two more Shedd Aquarium staffers arrived to help bring relief to our efforts.

This collaborative support is part of a long-standing relationship between the Center and Shedd that has included professional staff exchanges, program support and more. Shedd consistently supports organizations such as The Marine Mammal Center through the aquarium’s rescue response program. In the past, we’ve worked together to save animals in the most dire circumstances, which includes rescuing and providing a permanent home for a sea lion pup named Cruz that was blinded by gunshot.

We share in a greater goal to inspire marine life conservation and nurture ocean stewardship by educating children and adults about marine mammals and their important role as indicators of ocean and human health—a connection we all share.

The Center is part of a larger marine mammal stranding network of more than 100 organizations permitted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to rescue and rehabilitate marine mammals along every mile of U.S. coastline.

Through our work rescuing and caring for hundreds of seal and sea lion patients each year, we are able to study the causes of their illnesses and the conditions affecting the health of marine populations and the ocean—elucidating the occurrences of infectious disease, toxicities and even cancer.

Without our help, many of these animals simply would not survive. And through their care, we gain important insights into our watery world and a channel for our desire to act with compassion for our mammalian kin.