Note: another version of this story appeared in City Lifestyle Laguna Niguel magazine.
Otto is only a few months old, but he is already bigger than many human adults. And yet, by elephant seal standards, Otto is still quite small. And that’s why he’s here, in an enclosure at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. Like most of the beautiful animals here at the center, Otto was rescued from right here in Orange County, and brought here to be rehabilitated. Under the careful watch of the veterinary team, he was able to put on weight, learn to catch fish, and be social with other elephant seal pups. Now, only a few months later, he is on the cusp of being released back into the Pacific Ocean, there to live a normal and healthy life.
In the wild, elephant seal pups nearly quadruple their weight in a matter of about four weeks. By the end of that first month, fed solely on a diet of milk rich in fats, they will weigh about 300 pounds! Otto is older than that, and not yet at that goal weight. But once he is, he will return home. His stay here has been smooth, just a few months, and his progression has been remarkable according to the staff. But I don’t see Otto as a patient of a unique animal hospital and shelter. All I see is the cutest creature with the biggest and most beautiful eyes ever.
Otto is far from the only marine mammal currently in the care of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. On this Saturday in June, he is joined by more than thirty others: elephant seals, California sea lions, and harbor seals. He also has a staff of more than thirty, hundreds of volunteers, and a constant stream of visitors to keep him company. Those visitors come from all over Southern California to watch adorable animals, learn about the important work of the center, and to find out how they can help save the marine mammals that we share a home with.
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center has been operating here in Laguna Beach for 51 years. Its building is a former equestrian barn tucked into the narrow space between a creek and the hills of Laguna Canyon. It isn’t exactly the space one would imagine housing the preeminent marine rescue organization in Orange County. And yet, here they are, using their small space as efficiently as possible. The original barn holds the sicker, newly rescued animals, and isn’t open to the general public. But inside, you can easily imagine an ICU unit at any top hospital. There are separate rooms for the animals – and yes, they are all given names as soon as they come in – white boards with treatment plans, and busy staff moving in and out. The only difference is that the floor here is wet. These are marine mammals, after all.
Debbie Finster is the Vice President for Development here at the center, and my host and tour guide for the day. She points out wooden markers and flags that detail a small expansion that is about to begin. While there is very little room to expand, there is a bit, and the center intends to use whatever it can. Among the most exciting of the expansion plans is an on-site water treatment plant. The Pacific Marine Mammal Center is the second largest user of water in Laguna Beach, behind the city itself. With a mission of conservation, the Board decided that being more sustainable with water was integral to the work being done here.
Outside the barn are a number of enclosures with pools. Animals are separated by species, as well as according to how far along they are in their treatment. A group of sea lion pups is taught to compete for food, as they would in the wild. They flop all over each other, and run up to the gate as they see me, hoping I’m coming with lunch. In another pool, a single harbor seal pup is playing with a fish that his medical team hopes he eats. But he seems to find more joy in pushing it around the pool with his nose this morning. Fun fact: seals and sea lions only eat fish head first, so that the scales and fins don’t choke them going down.
Visitors to the center are able to watch the animals from outside the fences, and then from a small platform that leads up to the second story educational center and office space. Tour guides explain that humans aren’t allowed to touch the animals – no matter how much we might want to kiss, pet, or snuggle them – so that they won’t see humans as approachable in the wild. Humans also come with the possibility of disease that might make the animals’ fragile health conditions exacerbated, and we certainly don’t want to do that.
Debbie takes a few minutes to talk to me about disease in marine mammal populations, something the center is studying. Over the past decade or so, cancer rates in sea lions are up more than 20%. Apparently there was a dump of DDT off the coast of Catalina, and currents have brought it here to the mainland coast. And beyond disease, plastics humans dump have had terrible effects on marine life, not to mention animals caught in lines humans have left, or poisoned by runoff.
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center runs just about the most innovative annual fundraising campaign I’ve seen. It takes about 150,000 pounds of fish to feed the animals at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, and it costs about $1 per pound. I decide to sponsor a sea lion pup’s food for a week, which the center tells me is fifty pounds. $50 is a small price to pay for such a noble mission. (Other fundraising campaigns help with veterinary staff costs, educational programs, and an amazing program with local children’s hospitals that provides virtual visits and real gift boxes.)
The Pacific Marine Mammal Center is small, and a visit might only take a half hour, but its work is certainly not. Over the years, thousands of beautiful animals like Otto have been rescued, nurtured back to health, and released back into the ocean to live. I’m grateful for the visit, and for making so many cute new friends!
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