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96 Hours in the Life of a Sea Lion

What started out as a routine rescue training exercise ended in a real-life rescue of a sea lion and a first-time adventure for two Marine Mammal Center volunteers!

July 25, 2013

Rescue, Rehab and Release!

Release video courtesy: Jessica Kendall-Bar

On July 21, 2013, members of The Marine Mammal Center's Special Rescue Operations (SRO) team participated in a routine training exercise in Monterey. The training is designed to hone their rescue skills and their ability to use special rescue equipment in order to come to the aid of sick and injured marine mammals that are in hard to reach places, such as floating docks, piers and in the water. For Sausalito resident and volunteer Casey Visintin, the day would pay off with a big reward - an actual rescue!

Casey Visintin, with The Marine Mammal Center's Special Rescue Operations team, keeps an eye out for entangled sea lions along a wharf in Monterey, CA .
© The Marine Mammal Center

Practice makes perfect, so the team boarded a small Zodiac boat and began scouting the harbor in search of entangled marine mammals in need of rescuing. Sadly, many California sea lions can be found living with entanglements - some for many months on end. Because of the extreme difficulty in capturing these animals, the team has to carefully plan for each scenario they encounter as they only get one shot to successfully rescue the animal. Unfortunately, even the best plans don't work and many times the animal swims away not to be seen.

On this day, a sea lion with an entanglement which had been spotted by visitors on June 27, reappeared on a cross beam under some pillars at a Monterey Wharf - not far away from where the team was conducting their scouting expedition. The team, consisting of: Peter Ottersbach (team leader), Roy Coto, Geno DeRango, Adam Fox, Doug Hailey, Barbie Halaska, Lincoln Shaw, Kathi Koontz, Rusty Rosenburg, Jean-Michel Trivi, Heather Willis, and Casey Visintin, made a rescue plan.

The Marine Mammal Center's Special Rescue Operations team successfully nets an entangled sea lion.
© Geno DeRango - The Marine Mammal Center

"We took two clam shell nets (large rectangular nets that float on the water) and positioned them on either side of and just below where the animal was resting under the pier," Casey explained. "Roy, Kathi, Heather, Lincoln and myself were in the water; I was Lincoln's trainee and Heather was Kathi's trainee. We stuck close to them and assisted as they placed the nets. Roy was moving into position to flush the animal, but before he was in final position, the animal was startled and rolled off the beam into Lincoln's net. Lincoln then twirled the net in order to lock him in and then we slowly guided him back to the boat for assistance. The team carefully dragged the netted animal alongside the boat to the launch area where ground support assisted securing the animal into a rescue carrier for transport. I estimate the rescue took between 30 an 60 minutes to complete."

Casey has been volunteering at The Marine Mammal Center headquarters in Sausalito since 2009 where he currently is an assistant crew supervisor on Wednesday night crew, helping to take care of the patients. He and his crew mate, Heather Willis, had been on two other SRO training and scouting missions, but only as observers. Today was their first day of actually putting to use what they had learned and rescued an animal. In honor of the occasion, the team decided to name the sea lion H.C. - using the first letters of Casey's and Heather's first names.

"I thought about nothing else until the sea lion was actually in the net; I was really focused on that," Casey said. "I felt exhilarated and happy that we had a successful rescue and he was going to get help. I can’t wait to see him go back to the ocean.

At The Marine Mammal Center hospital headquarters in Sausalito, CA, Koret Foundation veterinary intern, Dr. Greg Frankfurter, cuts away the 1-inch wide rubber band entanglement.
© The Marine Mammal Center

The next day at The Marine Mammal Center, veterinarians prepared H.C. for anesthesia so they could safely cut the entanglement off of him. While young sea lion pups can be easily (for the most part) restrained for such a procedure, securing a 244 pound strong, healthy male sea lion is a whole different story and requires medical intervention by way of sedation!

Once HC was anesthetized, the tedious task of removing the entanglement and cleaning the wound began. The veterinarians removed the entanglement - a rubber band that was approximately one inch in width, and 6-to 7-inches in length - from his neck. The resulting wound was about an inch deep. Veterinarians estimate that H.C. had been wearing this tight collar of ocean trash for at least 2 or 3 months.

Stan Jensen, volunteer at The Marine Mammal Center, holds the one inch wide rubber band that was removed from H.C.'s neck.
© The Marine Mammal Center

After a couple of days of R & R at the hospital, and verification of blood work that revealed no other medical abnormalities, veterinarians gave H.C. a thumbs up to be released back to the ocean - just 96 hours after he first arrived! A small crowd gathered on July 24 at Rodeo Beach during a pre-sunset release. Schnelly, another California sea lion that was rescued in Marin County on July 7 and had been treated for an acute case of domoic acid toxicity, was released first and then H.C. joined her a short time later, both body-surfing the waves much to the delight of beachgoers.

As of July 25, The Marine Mammal Center has rescued 367 marine mammals this year and 63% of those patients are now back in the ocean.

Schnelly takes a quick look at Rodeo rock before diving into the surf at Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands on July 24, 2013. H.C. followed her "flipper prints" a short time later.
© The Marine Mammal Center


Learn about California sea lions

Sign up for Run for the Seals, Aug. 17

Learn about our Leave Seals Be campaign!

Read how you can prevent ocean trash and be inspired by The Ghost Below art exhibit


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