Curious about how we rescue, rehabilitate and release marine mammals back to the wild? Here are some commonly asked questions about our life-saving work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Do the animals bite?
Seals and sea lions are wild animals and may bite if they feel threatened. They are not typically aggressive towards people. California sea lions and other wild animals carry a number of diseases that can be transmissible to humans and dogs, so it’s extremely important to keep a safe distance on beaches and never interact with a marine mammal. People should maintain a distance of at least 150 feet from seals and sea lions.
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.
Does the Center release animals at the location from which they were rescued?
No, we do not usually release animals at the location from which they were rescued. Often the rescue sites are public beaches, which are not good release points. Other animals are rescued from places that are very inappropriate for them such as docks, sidewalks, roads, porches, carports, and even airport runways. Marine mammals are migratory animals and are capable of swimming large distances, so it does not affect them to be released at a different point within their range.
Where are animals released?
The majority of animals are released at a quiet, non-public beach at Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County. Occasionally, we release animals at other locations such as Anchor Bay Campground, Mendocino County; Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, San Mateo County; Point Lobos State Reserve, Monterey County; or Leffingwell Landing, San Luis Obispo County. At times, we release young California sea lions that have become accustomed to human contact and northern fur seals that are pelagic, out near the Farallon Islands via boat. Using remote release sites ensures that the released animals will have a quiet beach away from humans on which to gradually reenter the wild. In addition, there are seal and/or sea lion haul out areas in close proximity to these release locations.
What are your release criteria?
Prior to release, a veterinarian must give animals a clean bill of health. Stable body weight and blood chemistry and hematology values within normal parameters are also required. The animals must also be free-feeding, that is, able to eat fish on their own. Pups and vision-compromised animals must be capable of tracking and eating live fish.
What does the Center do with animals that cannot be released?
Although the Center's ultimate goal is to release animals back to the wild, occasionally we will have an animal that is non-releasable. Animals that we have designated as non-releasable have included a sea lion with epilepsy, a northern fur seal that was hit by a car after coming ashore in Berkeley, and a harbor seal pup that suffered brain damage after being illegally picked up from a beach by unauthorized people who allowed him to get overheated. We try to place these animals in licensed zoos or oceanaria, where they will be cared for properly and will be with others of their species. Occasionally, the Center has also served as a refuge for captive animals being transferred or placed in another zoo or aquarium. The length of stay for these animals depends on how quickly a zoo is found that will take them, and how quickly all the appropriate permits are approved and funds for the transfer are gathered. By transferring these non-releasable animals to zoos and oceanaria, we are helping ensure that these animals are given a comfortable home, and fewer animals are collected from the wild populations for captivity. The animals also provide an opportunity to educate the public about marine mammals.
How does the Center follow up on released animals?
All released pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) are tagged on their flippers with numbered orange plastic tags, registered at the Center and with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Local biologists and marine mammal observers report tag numbers for released seals and sea lions that are resighted in the wild back to NMFS and the Center. NMFS permittees use tags of different colors. Año Nuevo researchers use green tags, Farallons researchers use pink tags, San Miguel Islands researchers use red tags, and so on. Orange is the color used by California rehabilitation centers like the Center.
What percentage of rescued animals are released back into the wild?
Through effective assessment, triage, and monitoring processes, the Center only admits animals that are sick or injured and in need of medical assistance. Survival varies by species, but overall approximately half of the animals admitted are released back into the wild.
Are pups released by the Center able to fend for themselves?
Such concerns are very valid at a rehabilitation center. We try to prevent the pups from becoming tame by taking several precautions. Contact with the pups is kept at a minimum; unnecessary handling is not allowed, such as cuddling or pampering. Hand-feeding is practiced only until the pup learns to grab its food from underwater. Keeping several pups together in the same pen promotes socialization with each other and not with people. The Science Department has placed radio tags on some harbor seal pups before release in order to monitor their behavior in the wild. We have located many tagged harbor seals, hauled out and healthy six months to a year after release.