Story and Photos by Kathleen Walls

With all of the problems our marine life is facing lately, it's a wonder any of the babies live to grow up. However, there is one organization in Southern California that is making a difference in the lives of seals and sea lions.

Kelli Lewis , Education Director at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, told of the center's main purpose; the rescue and rehabilitation of baby seals and sea lions. In most cases, they are released back in the wild. Many are found beached and unable to fend for themselves yet. There are several differences between thetwo species. She explained one difference between seals and sea lions. "Seals cannot rotate their hind flippers forward to "walk" on land as fur seals or sea lions do. Instead, they move by hunching the body like an huge slug. Fur seals and sea lions are able to use both hind and fore flippers to travel on land."

The center began with a simple request from a child to a Newport Beach lifeguard to help a beached seal pup. the lifeguard, Jim Stauffer, knew nothing about caring for the young harbor seal but he quickly got a crash course from a veterinarian friend and the center was on its way. Other lifeguards and people at the beach brought the injured or beached sea mammals to Jim. He began in his home using a rubber tarp to create a pool. Soon neighbors began to complain about the barking seals and the city of Laguna Beach let him rent a barn at what was once a dog shelter. John Cunningham, also a lifeguard and a Laguna Beach High School teacher, began helping care for the animals at Friends of the Sea Lion , as it was first called. He began the teaching portion to educate people about sea mammals. It was the first marine mammal rehabilitation facility in California Today, PMMC has helped over 5,000 marine mammal patients in its facility.

You can visit and learn about these magnificent animals on your own or via the Orange County Wildlife and Beach Tour, owned and operated by Cheri Ikerd. I suggest taking the tour as you will see not only PMMC but lots of other great wildlife sites in Orange County including viewing seals in the wild. Cheri is professionally trained and very knowledgeable about marine life.

Cheri told us the story of some of the sea mammals rescued by the center. One was "Captain Hook," who came into the center with 70 fishing hooks embedded in his body. After removal and treatment Captain Hook was released. He was a persistent fellow and returned to his former habits. Once more he was brought into the center with multiple hooks in his body. Just like people, some seals never learn to stay away from trouble spots.

The behind the scenes portion of the center, while not as photographic as the animal pools, is the heart of the operation. It is here that tiny, malnourished animals can be placed in heated rooms and wrapped in blankets to keep them alive. Here too are the kitchens where "tasty" fish smoothies are created to nourish the weak animals. Kelli explained that they usually keep an animal from 2 to 4 months. End of January is when things begin getting hectic on through mid-March.

Dean Gomersall, Animal Care Supervisor, told us, "By the time they are six months old, the babies get adventurous. A storm comes along and they get separated from their mothers. Then we get all these little pups washed up on the beach looking around for food. They just aren't big enough to fend for themselves. No one wants to see a little animal die on the beach so we step in."

Another life saver is their "ICU area," Kelli explained, "We bring in small weak animals who can't regulate their body temperature we bring them in these heated rooms often even wrapping them in blankets."

There are even two new rooms with heated floors for animals on the edge of hyperthermia. Doctor Richard Evans is the vet who handles the medical procedures for the injured animals.

When the animals reach a good weight and can fend for themselves, they are placed in one of two center trucks and taken to an appropriate place on the beach to be released, usually in pairs.

The upper floor of the "barn" is used for classroom space and offices. Education about marine mammals has remained a crucial part of the center's operation.

For more information:

Pacific Marine Mammal Center

Orange County Wildlife and Beach Tour