Here are some frequently asked questions about how, where, and some common reasons why marine mammals need our help.
1. Is it normal for marine mammals to be on land?
Yes, most pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) haul out (rest on shore) for varying lengths of time. They haul out to give birth, nurse pups, breed, or simply to rest and sleep. The Center has volunteers trained to assess animals to determine if they are healthy and merely resting, or if they are sick. While one normally thinks of sea otters as living solely in the water, they also occasionally haul out on shore, rocks, or docks. Sea turtles come ashore to lay eggs, but not in northern California. Therefore, a sea turtle on shore within the Center's rescue range is probably suffering from cold shock and in need of rescue. Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) never haul out on land, so a dolphin, porpoise, or whale stranded on land is always in danger. Most often these animals are sick and in need of immediate veterinary care. They should never be pushed back into the water unless a trained individual has assessed the animal and determined that that is the best course of action.
2. Where do the animals come from?
Our rescue range stretches from the southern border of San Luis Obispo county to the northern border of Mendocino county. Within this area, the vast majority of our animals come from between Pismo Beach and Bodega Bay.
3. Do you tranquilize animals when they are rescued?
Typically, no. A tranquilized animal is at risk and could drown if the animal jumps in the water before rescue. However, in 2012 we successfully created a modified dart gun and a special “tranquilizer cocktail” that acts more like a mild sedative which is used for difficult rescue scenarios like PIER 39 and other hard to access locations.
4. How do the animals get to the Center?
Most animals are found stranded on beaches or rocky shorelines. After we are notified of a stranded animal, we rescue the animal only if we determine there is cause to do so. While it is quite normal for pinnipeds to come out onto land and rest, it is not normal for them to do so in populated areas, nor is it normal for healthy adult animals to allow humans to approach.
When taking a rescue call, the Center's Stranding Coordinators complete a "Distressed Animal Report." Questions asked during this initial phone report help determine whether or not further response is necessary. Once the report has been taken, we may dispatch a volunteer to assess the animal and determine whether it should be rescued immediately, monitored for a period of time, relocated, or left alone. If the animal is seriously sick or injured, we assemble a team of volunteers to rescue the animal. The size of the team and the type of equipment taken along is determined by the description of the animal from the caller. So accurate information regarding the size, species, and condition of the animal is very important. It is rather disconcerting to expect a 25-pound pup and find instead a 300-pound adult!
The standard rescue equipment consists of a carrier, herding boards, and hoop net(s). Once the animal is secure in a transport carrier, it is loaded into our rescue vehicle and taken to the Center. Animals rescued in San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Santa Cruz, Mendocino, and Sonoma counties are generally first stabilized by our local satellite operations before transport. If the trip is long and/or hot, the truck will pull off periodically to hose the animal down, keeping it as cool as possible. Newly-donated, air-conditioned vans support the animals' comfort during transport from our southern satellite operations.
5. What's the largest animal The Center has ever rescued?
We have responded to several whales at the spot where they stranded who weighed many tons. The most famous of these was Humphrey, who was a humpback whale who stranded in the San Francisco Bay area in 1985 and then again in 1990. Both times the Center volunteers responded, freed the whale and guided him back to the ocean. The largest animal we have brought into The Center was a subadult Steller sea lion named Simba picked up from Anchor Bay Campground, Mendocino County on July 16, 1992. Simba weighed 1041 pounds. Unfortunately, Simba was very sick and died shortly after rescue. Occasionally, we have rescued an adult female northern elephant seal weighing over 700 pounds. Every year we rescue several adult male California sea lions that weigh over 400 pounds. It may take 17 people to rescue an adult male California sea lion of this size.
6. What is the smallest animal The Center has ever rescued?
The smallest animal we have rescued was a female sea otter pup that weighed less than 3 pounds and was only a few days old. The pup was illegally picked up by well-meaning members of the public on March 23, 2005. The smallest pinniped we have rescued was less than six-pound northern fur seal named Gozzi from San Luis Obispo County in 1997. Unfortunately, Gozzi was extremely emaciated when he was rescued and did not survive. Generally, every year several fur seal pups, often weighing as little as 10-15 pounds, strand throughout our rescue range. An increase in strandings of fur seal pups in the fall has become an indicator of an upcoming El Niño event. Pacific harbor seal pups, which generally strand in February and March, also tend to be quite small, sometimes as little as 10-15 pounds.
7. Do the animals bite?
Yes! Even though these animals may look cute and cuddly, they are wild animals. Even though it is more difficult to deal with animals that are aggressive, we want them to stay that way since it means that they probably have a better chance of surviving once we release them back to the wild. On rescues and in rehabilitation, we try not to give the animals the opportunity to bite; when they do so, it is usually done in self-defense, rather than the desire to attack.
8. Does the Center rescue animals with shark bites?
Periodically, we rescue animals that appear to have bites from sharks and other predators. In a few cases, we have been able to positively identify shark bites by the shape of the wound, and sometimes a piece of tooth is found in the wound. Sharks are a major predator of seals and sea lions; most shark attacks probably result in successful kills, rather than just injuries.