This Hospital for Seals and Sea Lions Will Warm Your Heart

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©. Sheila Fitzgerald /

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, CA, takes in injured and malnourished pinnipeds and nurses them back to health.

Last week I was standing on the pier at Huntington Beach, south of Los Angeles, when a playful sea lion appeared in the green waves below. It was twisting and flipping with such joyful abandon that I couldn't help laughing. It would disappear for a few seconds and then resurface with a flourish, rolling onto its side and somersaulting before diving again. I was captivated, never having seen a sea lion before.

The next day I headed to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in nearby Laguna Beach to learn more about these beautiful playful animals. The center, which was established in 1971 and has grown significantly since then, serves as a hospital and rehabilitation clinic for sea lions and seals in need of medical attention. These mammals are part of the Pinniped family, whereas whales, dolphins, and porpoises are Cetaceans.

entrance to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center

© K Martinko -- Entering the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach

Sea lions and seals, which include Northern elephant seals, Pacific harbor seals, and occasionally Northern fur seals, need care for a number of reasons. They might get entangled in fishing nets or suffer from infections, parasites, shark bites, or pneumonia. Sometimes babies are separated prematurely from their mothers, e.g. if a storm pushes them apart, or they fail to thrive once their mother has left, becoming malnourished and dehydrated. (Sea lions and seals get all their hydration from the fish they eat, since they obviously cannot drink seawater.)

Another issue that has become serious since the late 1990s is domoic toxicity. It's caused by excess growth in the water of a colorless plankton called 'psuedo-nitzchia'. The plankton produce domoic acid and are eaten by small fish such as herring and anchovies. When seals and sea lions eat these fish, the acid causes damage to the central nervous system. From a plaque at the center:

"Domoic acid mimics the structure of chemicals that normally 'excite nerves in the brain. Thus, poisoned marine mammals may exhibit varied degrees of seizures, head weaving or bobbing, disorientation, and can die."

Volunteers from the PMMC collect animals in need of help from along the Orange County coastline. They are brought to the center and given care; the average stay is three months. While the animals in critical care cannot be viewed by the public, the ones in better condition are kept in shaded outdoor pools, where they are visible to visitors. From the website:

"Most animals come in dehydrated and the most effective means to provide fluids and nourishment is through tube feeding. The process requires blending of fish, electrolytes, warm water, vitamins, and medication into a fish formula. This formula is fed to the animals by inserting a flexible tube into the stomach using large syringes. As soon as the animals are hydrated and stable, we wean them to eat whole fish."

The animals are fed 10 percent of their average full body weight daily while staying at the center. For females, that's 220 pounds, and it's an impressive 770 pounds for males. The animals get frozen fish three times a day and are expected to compete for the food in groups, if possible. One little seal, Lumière (pictured at top), swam alone in a pool while a volunteer waved fish at him. Apparently he will only eat if fed by hand, and the staff suspect domoic toxicity in utero is the cause.

The end goal is always to return the animals to the ocean. They are tagged with an ID number, which indicates that the animal has been rehabilitated and helps to identify it in case it needs care again (which does happen). But sometimes they cannot go back. One female sea lion I saw, named Brawler, has a problem with her eyesight, which means she wouldn't survive on her own. In cases like this, the center is waiting for a zoo or sanctuary that wants one of these mammals.

Brawler was delightful to watch. She played energetically in the pool with another sea lion, as if they were wrestling in the water, then climbed out on her flippers and slid the length of the pool's edge on the slippery wet concrete, over and over again. Apparently these pinnipeds can survive temporarily in fresh water, since their outermost layer is fur, so the pools at the center are fresh water, and are cleaned out every 2-3 hours.

Brawler the sea lion

© K Martinko -- Brawler hangs out with a buddy in a pool at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. The chainlink fence obscures the view somewhat, but is necessary to keep these clever critters in. One volunteer recounted stories of past impressive escapes!

The PMMC posts release videos on YouTube, which show the rehabilitated animals being returned to the ocean. In one heartwarming clip, a sea lion named Ensign takes off toward the water before realizing her friend Ledger is reluctant to follow; she goes back to get him and together they jump into the waves.

In the past I've questioned the role of modern zoos and aquaria, with camera technology being what it is and our perception of animal rights having advanced greatly. This is why I loved visiting the PMMC. To me, it makes far more sense to rescue and rehabilitate animals, while allowing the public limited access, but always with the end goal of returning them to their natural and rightful habitat. Just seeing the joy those sea lions exhibit upon reaching the waves is enough to convince me that it wouldn't be right to keep those animals confined for our viewing pleasure if surviving in the wild were an option; but for a temporary healing time, it does make sense.

The center is a non-profit whose work relies on donations. You can purchase a membership that gives you permission to attend a release or a symbolic adoption kit. The site has a wish list of material items that it uses on a regular basis and asks for these to be purchased on Amazon and shipped directly to the center. You are also welcome to make tax-deductible cash donations. Admission is free year-round.