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Caring Together for Sea Lions in California

March 27, 2015

Caring Together for Sea Lions in California:

Since January of this year, the West Coast of the United States has been experiencing an unprecedented amount of California sea lion strandings. According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a record-setting number of sea lion strandings has occurred each month in 2015.

The world’s largest marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation facility, The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, is a nonprofit veterinary research hospital and educational center dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of ill and injured marine mammals, and has played a vital role in the rescue, rehabilitation and release of a large majority of these malnourished, dehydrated, and ill pups. As a leading zoological facility focused on research and conservation, Georgia Aquarium was honored to recently have sent several animal care staff members to California to assist The Marine Mammal Center with caring for these little animals. Watch the video below to hear more about the amazing and collaborative efforts being done for these stranded pups:

We also had the chance to sit down for a Q&A session with just a few of the dedicated Georgia Aquarium team members who helped with the sea lion crisis at The Marine Mammal Center. Let us introduce you to Senior Trainers Bryan Martin, Erin Morlang and Kristi Thompson, and Life Support Systems Technician, Christopher Rogers:

Q1: What was the most memorable moment for you when assisting The Marine Mammal Center with the sea lion pup strandings?

  • Bryan: There are a lot of moments that stand out, from the vast amount of animals at the Center to the people and volunteers working hard to assist the animals. However, the moment that really made everything stop and made me look around was seeing how much stronger and healthier the animals were when we were doing the physicals on them for release. Just looking around and seeing the Center volunteers, visiting groups and different represented facilities working together really showed how this community came together to help the stranded pups.
  • Erin: Overall, just the experience of successful rehab was most memorable along with being immersed in a totally different environment. Here, our animals’ needs are met every day and are given the best care possible. However there, you had suffering animals that would come in and we’d have to intervene and help, completely opposite situations than what we are used to. After being at The Marine Mammal Center a couple days, it was also wonderful to observe the level of progress the pups made from the state they were in one day compared to where they were the next. In rescue situations like that, you don’t always see progress and you can unfortunately lose a lot, so it was great to be able to see the hard work of us, the volunteers and other facilities pay off.
  • Kristi: The most memorable moment for me was to see a sea lion pup improve from such an emaciated state. Signs of improvement that we saw were an increase in energy to showing interest in fish and eating. Even though the pup may have been overly energetic at times, it was a positive indicator that they were getting stronger with the more nutrition and care they received.
  • Chris: My most memorable moment was when I arrived at The Marine Mammal Center and saw the large number of stranded animals being cared for by staff, volunteers and other organizations. I had previously visited the Center during the same time of the year, and seeing the drastic increase of stranded and ill animals in comparison to my prior visit emphasized the severity of the current sea lion stranding crisis.

    Q2: What was it like seeing the animals you helped rescue and rehabilitate be released back into the ocean? Can you briefly describe that moment?

  • Bryan:We were fortunate to go on a rescue and experience the entire process - we received a stranding call, rescued a sea lion, worked with the pups through rehabilitation and attended a release. To me, it gave perspective on just how much effort goes into each individual animal to get them back in the ocean successfully. I had such a great amount of respect for everything before we arrived, but even now so, seeing the amazing work The Marine Mammal Center does and to be part of it was gratifying and a huge success. There were definitely some misty eyes at the release.
  • Erin: It felt really amazing! It made me feel that my career had gone full circle, solidifying what we do here at the Aquarium even more because what we’re learning from caring for animals here in Atlanta, we’re able to then apply that experience in a different way and help the sick animals that were arriving at The Marine Mammal Center. After having seen the rehabilitated animals released, you just wanted to shout and cheer! To watch the pups go hesitantly into the water at first and then begin exploring was really cool.
  • Kristi: Seeing the animals released back in the ocean was an amazing site. I have assisted with the rehabilitation of sea turtles before, but had never participated in any release of marine mammals back to the ocean. To see the sea lion pups run toward the ocean together and take off swimming was a moment I will never forget. It made all of the hard work done by the incredible staff and volunteers worth it.
  • Chris: Releasing the animals we had rescued and rehabilitated was nothing short of success. Watching the process as 10-15 stranded and weakened animals arrived daily, to their gradual improvement over a few weeks’ time to the eventual release, gave me a great sense of pride and accomplishment.

    Q3: What did it personally mean to you to be able to participate in this collaborative and large rescue?

  • Bryan: I’ve always worked with animals in aquariums and zoos that cannot be released for various reasons and I love that aspect of training and guest education, but the rehab portion is also just as vital because it is an education point in which our industry can learn from so much. Having the opportunity to see the rehabilitation side at the Center, I was able to learn about sea lion and marine mammal medicine I hadn’t seen before. It also showed me the big picture that through our collaborative efforts in caring for these animals we are all working towards the same mission and purpose. 
  • Erin: I was very honored to be able to go and represent the Aquarium. It was a really memorable experience to be able to see all the volunteers and workers from totally different walks of life dedicating their time to caring for these animals. To witness this dedication from the community was pretty amazing. Also, I had previously gone to SANCCOB in South Africa to rehabilitate and release African penguins, and to be able to do the same type of rescue and rehab work on a different species was rewarding.
  • Kristi: I felt very fortunate to be able to participate in the rescue, rehab, and release of some of the animals at The Marine Mammal Center.  It was an honor to learn and participate in such a unique experience with such highly trained professionals and volunteers.

  • Chris: It’s always a great experience to work together with others in animal care and the experience at The Marine Mammal Center was no different. It was a collaborative effort between The Marine Mammal Center’s staff and volunteers, individuals from other institutions and us from Georgia Aquarium to not only provide the necessary manpower, but combine our knowledge and experience to help rehabilitate the animals successfully. It was an honor to see how hard these individuals worked daily to aid these weak animals and an inspiring experience to have worked alongside them.

    Q4: How did your skillset from working with animals in human care help you to better aid the stranded sea lion pups?

  • Bryan: What I didn’t realize when we got there was how important our gained knowledge from working with healthy animals in human care would come into play when working with the sick, stranded pups. The staff at The Marine Mammal Center expressed appreciation for having help from people that work with healthy animals since most of their work centers around sick animals.  We were able to discuss subtle changes and illnesses with the The Marine Mammal Center members and compare notes for a comprehensive evaluation of animal behavior and condition. 
  • Erin: Our experience really makes for a seamless transition. It makes it easier to jump in and help because you know what to watch for behaviorally along with eating patterns, making it easier to feed and care for the animals. We were also able to apply all of our care efforts we do here to the pups at The Marine Mammal Center.
  • Kristi: My experience from working with animals in human care helped me by knowing animal behavior and being able to notice changes within the animals.  I was also very comfortable performing all of the tasks very quickly and able to bring my expertise to use by alerting the veterinary staff of concerns that I had observed.

  • Chris: From working in the Life Support Systems department at the Aquarium, I was able to assist with the day-to-day life support duties The Marine Mammal Center needed by helping provide clean water for the recovering sea lion pups to swim and getting new seal lion habitats up and running. Also, working with animals in human care gave our team a better understanding of overall animal health, characteristics and water quality and allowed us to assist The Marine Mammal Center with additional insight into animal behavior and water treatment.
  • As stated earlier, Georgia Aquarium was honored to have been a part of such a collaborative and dedicated effort in rescue and rehabilitating these marine mammals. The devotion given by all at The Marine Mammal Center to save the pups is a great example of how like-minded organizations are working towards the same common goal of caring together for all animals, there in the wild as well as here in human care. View photos from Bryan, Erin and Kristi's time at The Marine Mammal Center:

    How can you help?
    The stranding season is not yet over and The Marine Mammal Center needs your continued support. Donate, adopt-a-seal or learn more at Follow the conversation on social media with hashtag #SeaLionCrisis2015

    Want to do more to support conservation programs?
    Join the Caring Together Club, a special community of animal advocates who understand and support the work that Georgia Aquarium and the zoological community are doing for animals everywhere. You can sign up today via our newsletter preference center. 

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