SAUSALITO, Calif. – The sound of a dozen rambunctious, hungry seals fills the observation deck of the Marine Mammal Center’s sprawling landscape. Children race up to the railings, pressing their squirmy bodies against it, eager to get a look at the oil-slick bodies flopping below.
The 42-year-old center is the world’s largest hospital for marine mammals. It’s a nonprofit organization that survives on memberships and donations from the public. It has become a beacon of hope for San Francisco’s lost and endangered oceanic life, allowing people to return to the basics of nature and learning how they can help take care of it.
One way the center teaches this is through tours. Every first and third Saturday, the center gives a behind-the-scenes view of how staff and volunteers run the place. Courtney Good, a guest experience coordinator, hosted one such event on March 18, giving people an in-depth look into how fish smoothies are made.
“It’s a pretty yummy combination of fish guts in a water mixture,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s a really fun and informative way to engage people with the seals.”
Kids as young as 7 participated by helping drop fish food into bags to feed the starving seals. Many of the mammals are suffering from malnutrition as a result of human waste dumped into the oceans. Some are pups separated from their mothers due to storms. A lot of the injured animals are so sick they aren’t able to interact directly with participants. Preparing food is a way for guests to feel connected to the mammals.
“I love this place,” participant Candace Bunnage said. “I have a 15-year-old son who wants to be a vet, and this is a great opportunity for him to learn more about the animals and how to take care of them. I’d love for us to get more involved.”
One of the ways people help the center is through the actual rescue of the animals. Good said they rely heavily on beach-goers to notice stranded seals and then report the distressed mammals. With more than 600 square miles of coastline to monitor, outside help has been key.
“Our goal is to rescue animals in need, rehabilitate them and then release them back to the ocean,” Good said. “Also critical to our mission is research and education.”
The center uses the information they collect from the marine mammals to learn how to help both animals and humans. For example, California sea lions have some of the highest cancer rates of any marine mammal and the center uses that data to assist both the sea lions and potentially find a cure for cancer in humans. GPS trackers in the animals then make it possible for the center to study the mammals long after they leave the facility.
“I think our people are really what make us unique,” Good said. “We have thousands of volunteers working long hours to help these animals. We want participants to come away from the center not only aware of how the ocean connects to them but also wondering what they can do to preserve and protect that.”
To learn more about the center, visit www.marinemammalcenter.org.