I have been a volunteer on the Friday Night Crew for more than three years, helping to feed the animals, clean their pens and pools, and give them medicine and shots as needed. It's a great way to help these animals, who are often the hapless victims of negligence, pollution, or other human activities. Sea lions come in with gunshot wounds or entangled in plastic, elephant seal pups are disturbed by unsupervised dogs on the beach, and harbor seal pups are mistaken for abandoned babies when their mothers are out hunting for food. Most animals are rescued after concerned people call The Marine Mammal Center to report a problem. If you see a distressed or possibly diseased animal on a beach, call the Center’s 24-hour hotline at 415-289-SEAL. You then get the honor of giving the animal a name.
The most fulfilling experience that a volunteer at The Marine Mammal Center can have is to attend a release, when a rehabilitated animal gets to go back to its ocean home. After a seal or sea lion is deemed fit to go back to the wild, the animal is taken in a carrier to a beach and let go. It is gratifying for volunteers to see an animal go back to where it belongs, after we have spent several weeks feeding and caring for it. The animals love it too, and often seem to be running joyously back into the ocean. Many releases take place at Chimney Rock, near Point Reyes, while others may be further afield such as the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve near Moss Beach or Point Lobos near Monterey. Occasionally sea lions are released at Rodeo Beach, just down the hill from the Center. Watch a video of a sea lion release at Rodeo Beach, posted on my Run for the Seals personal page.
It’s always rewarding to see the expressions on people’s faces as they watch a released seal or sea lion rush to the surf. Best of all is to see the people who just happened to be on the beach that day, not knowing in advance what is taking place. They approach us curiously as we gather our herding boards and prepare to open the large animal carriers that have been wheeled down to the edge of the ocean. Children are especially amazed when they realize that they are about to witness a once sick or injured animal return to the wild. For all the bad that humans do to animals, from polluting their habitat to negligently discarding trash that entangles them, it is refreshing to see something good result from human endeavor. That is why I Run for the Seals.
Sometimes we get an animal that can't be released, such as Ziggy Star, a northern fur seal who was found on a beach in Mendocino County, suffering from dehydration and malnutrition. After she was examined, it was determined that she has a chronic neurologic condition, a type of brain damage that makes it impossible for her to hunt in the wild. We now have to find a home for her with an aquarium or zoo where she can get the care she needs. To help in this effort, Team Ziggy Star has been created, a symbolic team in Run for the Seals. Anybody can join Team Ziggy Star - it is the only team that has a northern fur seal for a captain. Funds raised by this team will help Ziggy Star get to a new home, so she can be an ambassador for her species. That is why I Run for the Seals.
The diagnosis of Ziggy Star is indicative of the advanced level of research that is carried out by The Marine Mammal Center. More than just a rehabilitation hospital, the Center is one of the most leading edge facilities in the world in the study of marine mammals. This is important to humans as well, because seals and sea lions are indicator species that reveal a wealth of information about the health of the oceans around us. The Center’s specialists have made important discoveries and published extensive scientific findings in the areas of veterinary science, marine biology, and climate change.
The Center recently hosted a conference for the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine (IAAAM), an organization of professionals in the field of marine mammal medicine. One of the attendees joined us afterward on Friday Night Crew, helping us take care of our patients. She was a veterinarian from England, who was hoping to get accepted into the Center’s veterinary internship program. She told us how The Marine Mammal Center is known in England and around the world as the premier facility for the study and treatment of marine mammals. It was very humbling to see our work from the perspective of a distant visitor. That is why I Run for the Seals.
The Marine Mammal Center also has an active education program that is an essential part of the organization’s mission. Thousands of schoolchildren pass through the Center each year, taking part in field trips, tours, and classes that are taught about marine mammals. Education plays a critical role in the long term health and recovery of the ocean, because the choices we make in daily life have a direct impact on the world around us. Pollution, the use of insecticides, and the ever-present plastic bags that wrap up our daily purchases all take their toll on the health of the ocean. It can be a futile effort to release a wild animal back to the sea, when that environment is suffering from the effects of human negligence. That is why I Run for the Seals.
The issue of ocean health is vividly expressed in an art installation that is currently onsite at The Marine Mammal Center. The Ghost Below was created by local artists Judith and Richard Lang, who gather trash for their art at Kehoe Beach, in the Point Reyes National Seashore. They refer to themselves as the “curators of the beach,” creating art that tells the story of our ailing oceans. They also write a couple of blogs, Plastic Forever and One Beach Plastic, which seek to spread awareness about the consequences of our throwaway culture.
The Ghost Below exhibit takes its name from “Ghost Nets,” fishing nets that have been discarded or lost by fishermen and left to float aimlessly in the ocean for years. More than 450 pounds of ghost nets and other trash were found in the stomach of a sperm whale that beached itself near Tomales Point in 2008. The Marine Mammal Center sent out a team, led by Dr. Frances Gulland, Senior Scientist and member of the Marine Mammal Commission, to perform a necropsy on the animal to learn more about how and why it died. They extracted the netting and brought it back to The Marine Mammal Center, where Judith and Richard Lang repurposed it into the horrifying specter of Ghost Net Monster. This ominous statue stands in the courtyard of The Marine Mammal Center, greeting visitors with a menacing glare of ocean trash.
The Ghost Net Monster was the first installation in the exhibit, followed later by Indra’s Net, another ghost net that has been strung across the courtyard to reveal the connected nature of all life. Indra was a Hindu god who cast a net across the universe, with a jewel attached to each juncture of the net. Each jewel reflected every other jewel, symbolizing the interdependence of us all. The Ghost Below exhibit will be onsite at The Marine Mammal Center until the end of the year.
This year will be the 29th annual Run for the Seals. The event is known for its lighthearted and family-friendly atmosphere. There is a four-mile race for runners, as well as a more leisurely two-mile walk for those who want a more relaxed pace through the stunning coastal scenery of the Marin Headlands. Prizes are given out for the fastest runners, but also for the best costume (both human and canine) and the most money raised. Everybody gets a Run for the Seals T-shirt and a ticket to Aquarium of the Bay. After crossing the finish line, people gather for Family Fun Day at the Center for refreshments, and also to observe the patients onsite, take in The Ghost Below exhibit, and learn more about our pinniped pals.
Regular registration for Run for the Seals is through July 31 and costs $35 for adults and $20 for children. After that the price goes up, so getting started right away is a good idea. This is a great way to have some fun and taking an active role in healing our aching planet.
19th century San Francisco writer Ambrose Bierce defined the ocean as “a body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man - who has no gills.” Even though we don’t live in the ocean, we do live with it – a connection that runs as deep as the canyon off the coast of Monterey. There are 38 million of us human beings in California, living in close proximity to one of the greatest wildlife shows in the world. We are incredibly lucky to live in such a place and need to work hard to protect and preserve this fragile environment. That is why I Run for the Seals.