Earlier this month, I had the privilege of visiting The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. This incredible organization is dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating injured marine animals, and is almost entirely volunteer-run: Over 1,000 committed volunteers put in long and often challenging hours, all for the love of wildlife.
We started our day off with a tour of the facility and overview of what they do. The Marine Mammal Center is dedicated to not only saving animals with rescues, but also to preventing animals from needing their help in the first place by taking care of the local habitat. TMMC has numerous educational programs in place to help people understand the impact of their actions and how they can help. One of the first things you’ll notice in the center is this “Trash art” made from recovered garbage. This piece is called “The Ghost Net Monster” and is constructed from the very same nets that kill whales when they are mistaken for food and eaten.
Our tour guide, Mitchell, was very engaging and does great impressions! He educated us about the local marine life and gave us a demonstration of how they rescue distressed animals using this little plushie. But while rescues are a more dramatic part of what they do at TMMC, it’s just one of the aspects of what they do. Indeed, much of what the volunteers spend their time on is nowhere near as “Glamorous”.
To help give us a hands-on experience of how hard these volunteers work, we were given the opportunity to get stuck in and help ourselves. Here I am donning rubber boots and getting ready to wash down a truck!
This truck is one of the rescue vehicles used to transport hurt animals to and from the Center. If you have sharp eyes, you might notice a bottle of Dawn dish soap in the background – that is because Dawn is a big supporter of The Marine Mammal Center, donating both funds and soap to the facility. Dawn’s support of animal rescue groups started 30 years ago, when the company started getting requests from charities asking for donations of soap. Why did they want this specific dish soap so badly? After doing extensive studies on which substances worked best for removing oil from feathers, Alice Berkner, founder of International Bird Rescue determined that Dawn dish soap worked the best. After this was brought to Dawn’s attention, they decided to organize more formal partnerships with both the International Bird Rescue and The Marine Mammal Center so that they could more efficiently support the animal rescue workers in need of their help. So you’ll notice a lot of Dawn if you’re volunteering at either of these places! We also used the soap to scrub fish scales off the walls of the kitchen. Why were there fish scales on the wall, you ask? Well…
Another big job is sorting fish out of a big frozen block. The fish are removed, inspected, and either put into a bucket to be fed to the wildlife patients, or into a compost bucket. As we were shown the ropes, the volunteers explained that any damaged fish are to be discarded, as they don’t want to feed the animals anything they wouldn’t eat themselves. Prepared a little differently, I’m sure, but the point remains.
Talking to the staff and helping with some of the chores really illustrated the true passion and dedication which they have. To spend hours every week voluntarily doing hard, unpaid work really underscores their commitment to animals. And we had the true honor of witnessing with our own eyes the whole reason why every volunteer works so hard: A release of rehabilitated sea lions.
It was an unbelievable honor to be able to participate in this release. It is extremely rare for non-staff members to come along – only 4 “Outsiders” have ever been allowed to attend a release, so the fact that our group had the chance to do this was incredible. We took a long drive out to Chimney Rock in Point Reyes for the release, as they purposely choose isolated beaches to return the animals to for their safety.
We were allowed to help carry the crates containing the sea lions out of the back of the rescue vehicle and set them down by the water for release. We were then sent up to an observation point to watch as the volunteers opened the crates and let the sea lions back out into the wild.
There were three sea lions being released: The first was “Fritters”, a subadult California sea lion that was brought to TMMC because she was severely underweight, malnourished, and suffering heart murmurs. The other two California sea lions, “Row” and “Apostrophe”, were both yearlings and also malnourished and severely underweight. Row also had trauma on her right hind flipper due to getting a fishing hook caught on it.
Once the crates were opened, the sea lions dashed down to the water and swam off. It was an amazing moment! Fritters was released first, and after she swam off, Apostrophe and Row were released at the same time. They were jumping around in such a playful way as they swam – it was joyous to watch them return to freedom! At one point, the pair jumped up into the air out of the water and touched noses as if they were kissing; it was the kind of inspirational moment you’d see in a film.
After we finished the release, we were able to walk down a trail to another observation point and watch elephant seas through binoculars. It was a perfect way to end our day!
I will have so much more to share with you over the coming weeks, including an interview with a TMMC volunteer and video footage of the sea lion release, so make sure to stay tuned for more on my “Day in the Wildlife” along with suggestions on how you can get involved and help!