Opening day last June 15 drew over 400 visitors to the brand-new $32 million, 125,000-square-foot Marine Mammal Center campus. Gone are the bathtubs, kiddie pools and chain link fences; they’ve been replaced with sunken concrete tubs, a state-of-the-art water filtration system and a brand-new eco-chic facility. For the past three decades scientists here have conducted research on marine mammal disease immunology and published findings in leading journals. The center’s medical and science staff work with colleagues all over the globe, most notably from England, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Scotland, the Netherlands, France and Germany.
Bright New Beginnings
Marin-born-and-raised executive director Jeff Boehm stands above the 18 holding pens and pools. “I started here last year and the story I like to get across is (that) while we are a hospital at our core with 600 patients a year, it gives us the platform to do other important things like advance education.” While the center could quietly carry out all its work in the headlands without being open to the public, Boehm feels it is equally important to foster awareness. “We have these fantastically charismatic animals, and if we can get our visitors inspired to care more about these animals we can all become better stewards.”
That requires arriving with the right expectations: “This is not a SeaWorld or a petting zoo; it is more of a learning experience,” he says. Visitors are gently reminded that the patients come first; while observation is OK anytime from the picturesque viewing decks, access to the wildlife is restricted to volunteers and staff.
Another enlightening aspect is the 22.5kWp solar energy system designed for the center by SPG Solar. The panels serve two purposes—shading the animals and capturing solar power for use on site. The system was specially designed with materials to withstand the harsh headlands weather and with hidden wires to ensure safety of curious pinnipeds. “We worked closely with the staff to create a custom design,” CEO Thomas Rooney of SPG says. “This was a unique project that not only supports the center’s renewable energy goals but improves the quality of life for the rescued animals.” The system includes an interactive kiosk with online real-time monitoring for use as a guest educational tool.
Patients here include seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises and sea otters rescued along a 600-mile stretch of California coast from Mendocino to San Luis Obispo Counties. Rehabilitating and keeping them healthy requires around 86,000 pounds of fish a year, with some animals eating upwards of six pounds of fish a day. Care to help? The dollar-a-pound campaign is a great way to directly contribute; each dollar you give produces a pound of fish.
Seduced by all the cuteness? Apparently so are the 800-or-so volunteers who do much of the work at this facility and its satellite locations in Anchor Bay (Fort Bragg), Monterey and San Luis Obispo. From hand-feeding and making fish shakes for the creatures to hosing down pens, the volunteers’ labors make it possible to run the facility, conduct research and educate the public on budget. Interested in joining? The next newcomers’ meeting is August 29, 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. For more info, see marinemammalcenter.org/get_involved/volunteer/volunteer.asp.
Since 1975, on-site scientists have collected tissue samples from every animal that dies, providing a valuable database for research. One of the the center’s new public viewing areas is the postmortem lab where visitors can watch a necropsy (examination of the body) being performed to learn how the animal died and to collect tissue samples. “This is very cutting edge,” says Boehm. “Most such places have put their staff on display, but no one has put pathology on display. It’s a little provocative, but we hope it inspires the right minds,” i.e., future researchers and veterinarians. Creatures’ bodies are kept in a refrigerated space until the necropsy is performed, and now the lab is seconds away—through a swinging door instead of out the door and down the hill. To prevent accidental viewings by the unprepared, the display area is blocked by a gate with a sign that warns people about what they may see. Afterall, not everyone may be ready for the science behind this unique exhibit.