The survival rate for the animals they take in - some of whom are victims of boat strikes, trash entanglement, and even gunshot wounds - is around 50%.
If it feels unbearable to dwell on the ways in which these creatures are harmed and even destroyed by human actions, don't despair. The 45 staff members and over 1,000 volunteers of the forty-year-old Marine Mammal Center provide an antidote to that hopelessness, offering us a clear example of how an organized, well-meaning group of individuals can make the most fundamental difference: the difference between life and death.And that is something to be celebrated. This past Saturday, June 25th, 2016, I was lucky enough to be present for such a celebration, as several of these animals were restored to their birthright of freedom, released into the water at Drake's Beach, about sixty miles north of San Francisco.
A few facts:
- The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC)was founded in 1975 by three locals. The location was a former Nike missile site, which means that now, a place once devoted to tools of war is dedicated to saving lives.
- TMMC published its first scientific paper in 1979. The title was Nursing Care of Stranded Northern Elephant Seals. Today, forty percent of all scientific literature on the topic of marine mammals worldwide is generated by the center.
- Over its forty year history, TMMC has rescued and rehabilitated over 20,000 animals, including the humpback whale, "Humphrey," who swam into San Francisco Bay in 1985, and then traveled 69 miles through fresh water up the Sacramento Delta.
- If you're a Lord of the Rings fan, you've heard the cries of the pups from the 2000 season, who were recorded at the center by the film's sound engineer, as a basis for the voices of the Orcs.
- In 1993 the center opened a store and center on Pier 39, so if you can't make it out to the headlands, you can stop by Pier 39 to learn about the sea lions you're seeing around the docks, and maybe while you're at it, do some supportive shopping!
Now, on to the party...
Mitch Fong, the center's Individual and Planned Giving Officer, has a gift of his own, for public speaking. With charm and passion he welcomes us and explains the three tenets of the center's mission: Rescue and rehabilitation, scientific research, and education. In this photo, he reminds us that these are wild animals, and instructs us to keep our oohs and ahs to a minimum, and to back away from the animals if they decide to take a detour on their way to the water.
Out the sea lions come, stopping just briefly for a conference before heading quickly to the water.
The seals, unlike the eager sea lions, take their time. Once out of the crates, they find their way into a kind of scrum at water's edge, where they linger for minutes before entering the surf.
Volunteers called "boarders" stand between the animals and the spectators, helping to keep the animals moving in the right direction.
Even after the animals are in the water, the boarders make their way down the beach, just in case any animals have second thoughts.
Soon, all we can see is a lone head bobbing in the distance. Our eyes scan the blue. He's gone. No, there he is! And then he's gone again.
The crates stand empty.
We have been allowed, as those who stand at the shore have been for millennia, to eavesdrop on ocean and earth's perennially shifting conversation. But now we wander off. Towards home. Or a hike. Or a Saturday lunch in nearby Point Reyes Station.
A momentary loneliness passes over, anonymous and obscure until it abruptly identifies itself as the truest indication of a job well done. Namely, the absence of any trace that the job ever needed doing in the first place.