Serious Volunteers Need Apply at Morro Bay's Marine Mammal Center

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To report a distressed marine mammal on the Central Coast call the Marine Mammal Center’s local hotline at (805) 771-8300.

To rescue stranded or injured animals in sometimes difficult circumstances is the calling of the most dedicated volunteers, those whose passion and concern for sea mammals – seals, sea lions, sea elephants, dolphins, porpoises and whales – aren’t just words, but a deep, active and lasting commitment.

The Marine Mammal Center headquarters in Sausalito is a full-service veterinary hospital monitoring 600 miles of coastline from Mendocino County to San Luis Obispo with a network of hundreds of volunteers. Animals that strand on the beaches of San Luis Obispo draw the rapid response of the Center’s outpost on the coast in Morro Bay, and while it is a satellite office, Morro Bay is vital to the organization’s southern reach.

The Center’s Jim Oswald offers this overview from Sausalito: “The Marine Mammal Center’s Morro Bay, Monterey Bay and Anchor Bay triage sites have always served as a ‘base’ for rescue personnel living in those regions to be able to quickly come to the rescue of sick and injured marine mammals in need along the 600 miles of coast that we respond to.

“Approximately 80% of our funding comes from private sources and it is that funding that helps our animal care and rescue operations thrive throughout all of our rescue range locations. In 2011, approximately 24% of our 545 patients were rescued from the Morro Bay region. Having the Morro Bay triage site is certainly important to us, and more importantly, to marine mammals in that region that need help,” Mr. Oswald reported to The ROCK.

Hidden from traffic off a side road at 1385 Main Street, across from Lemo’s, the low-profile Morro Bay field office is located on the grounds of Dynegy’s Morro Bay Power Plant. Since it doesn’t house injured or recovering seals or offer public tours, the facility’s critical work rescuing, treating and transporting injured marine mammals takes place mostly out of public view. This setting may limit the public’s ability to truly appreciate their work, but it also underscores the importance of the work they do and the absolute dedication to marine mammals it takes to do it without fanfare.

Lisa Harper Henderson is the sole staff person at the Morro Bay field office, opened in early 2006, and has been working with the Center since 2002. “Volunteers truly do everything,” Miss Henderson recently told The ROCK. “It’s kind of addictive when you start working with these animals and see the good that you could do.”

The Morro Bay facility has a large “animal kitchen” with food, supplies, medication and formula. Marine mammal patients find themselves there usually because of malnutrition, human interactions — entanglements in ocean trash, gunshots, beach harassment, boat strikes, etc. — and illness such as bacterial infections and toxic algae poisoning. If a young animal comes in, under a veterinarian’s orders from Sausalito, volunteers with some medical training will see that the animal is tube-fed and stabilized.

“Usually they’re just here for a day a two, spend a night or two, and then they are transported to Sausalito to the main hospital, and that’s where the rehabilitation happens,” Miss Henderson said. “It works really well, but it’s kind of like a Pony Express.”

Rescued mammals are no less dramatically transported station to station via the Marine Mammal Center’s rescue relay system than the mail was carried rider to rider in the dusty days of the Pony Express.

“From here we have another satellite facility in Moss Landing, so we meet halfway at King City (for the) swapping of the animals or vehicles, so to speak,” Miss Henderson explains, “then they go to next facility probably for their next feed. Sometimes they’ll spend another night or they’ll continue all the way up, and from there they’ll meet at Half Moon Bay, and Half Moon Bay to Sausalito, so it’s quite the journey.”

February-March is the beginning of pup season when elephant seal weaners leave the rookeries; some wind up on beaches, and Marine Mammal Center volunteers will see if they need assistance. From March to May it’s the harbor seal pup season and the Center runs its annual campaign to “Leave Seals Be.”

“They are about this big,” Miss Henderson said, holding her hands about a foot and a half apart, “they’re very adorable and they go ‘ma!’ The moms can’t stay on the beach the whole four weeks like the elephant seals do because they’re small animals, so they’re going to be with their pup three or four days, then they’re going to go out and forage and leave their pups on the beach.”

That’s where problems begin for both seal and amateur rescuer.

“Usually well-intentioned people will come by and think the pup’s abandoned,” Miss Henderson said. “They pick them up, take them home, put them in the bathtub, and we get called… If you think they’re distressed, if you think they’re maternally separated, then call us.

“When animals arrive at the Center for a night or two, they are put on a scale and weighed and placed in a pen, unless they’re harbor seals which have their own special room. Once they’re in here we’re going to get a good look at them, assess their condition, and then we’re on the phone with a veterinarian team up in Sausalito, and there we’re going to describe what’s going on with the animal. They give us orders, and then we will either start doing a feed or give them fluids… ”

They have a well-stocked medical exam room in Morro Bay where they can begin to treat the animals for the journey ahead.

“Every animal starts with a chart just like a person in the hospital,” she said. “There are a lot of similarities — they’re mammals, we’re mammals — and that chart follows them all the way through their care and all the through until hopefully they’re released.”

Fortunately, Miss Henderson said, there aren’t many live strandings of whales, porpoises or dolphins. There have been a few successful releases, but strandings are few and far between. “If we do, if we have a live cetacean, we really get out there as fast as we can.

“Once they hit the shore their survival rate is very low, so we’re there as soon as possible. We have special training techniques that we use specifically for those cetaceans, such as a dolphin, and our goal is to get that animal safely off the beach on to transport and on its way to wherever that animal is going to go, to get it to that location, to get it into the pools, and there they will have experienced, expert people there taking care of them.”

Morro Bay volunteers operate “on call” but that doesn’t mean they have to come in and sit all day waiting for something to happen. Sometimes, out of season, nothing happens for a long while.

“As long as you’re able to drop what you’re doing and respond,” Miss Henderson said, “and if we have volunteers spread out, if we get a call that’s in San Simeon and we have people in Cambria, then we can call that person and they can go up and check and assess if the animal’s still there, does the animal need rescuing, before we assemble a crew, get everyone here, get them in the vehicles, and drive for what could be an hour and a half to get all the way up to that site.”

The Morro Bay facility is always in need of volunteers. Three to five volunteers are generally on call in Morro Bay, with dozens more in the area network. “The biggest challenge is keeping volunteers,” Miss Henderson said. “We do two volunteer introduction meetings and trainings a year, one in January and one in June. During that time we try to really emphasize the commitment; yes, we really want you, but it is a commitment and people need to be serious. As can you imagine, it takes quite some time to learn everything and there’s a lot to learn. The hit-and-miss approach is not really doing the marine mammals any good because the training has not gotten to the appropriate level.

“We have a good volunteer turnout,” she said, “but I think, as with any volunteer organization, there’s a high attrition rate, but we have very dedicated volunteers. In Sausalito there are people that have been with us over 35 years. Down here we have a few individuals that have been with us 15, 20 years. So you really become involved. I can’t imagine not being involved in one way or another. I was a volunteer for almost seven years before I was offered the position and then became full-time staff.”

The Morro Bay Center is holding a “Volunteer Introduction Meeting” on Wednesday, January 9, 6:30 p.m. at the Morro Bay Community Center on Kennedy Way. Anyone interested in helping to either rescue and care for marine mammals found on local shores can attend and find out more about the Center, what they do, and what’s expected of a volunteer.

As a volunteer-based organization, all Marine Mammal Center volunteers are well trained and highly valued. In addition to assisting in the rescue, treatment and transport of animals, Miss Henderson and a handful of volunteers do a bit of everything – outreach, education, group presentations, working with the media, and participating with educational booth at events like Morro Bay’s annual Harbor Festival.

The Marine Mammal Center is a nonprofit, most of the fundraising is focused in the Bay Area, and funds are always needed to cover expenses. What is the Center’s biggest expense every year?

“Our biggest expense is fish,” Miss Henderson said. “We go through lots and lots of fish. We do a lot of transporting with vehicles and fuel – but fish is the biggest cost. It’s expensive just because of the sheer amount of animals. Just by size and number of animals that come through our facility, we are the largest marine mammal facility in the world. We cover from the site 600 miles of the California coastline. We have very large numbers and they’ve all got to eat fish until they’re ready to go.”

The Center is now in the process of adding new Pacific coastline to its national and international network. In September it broke ground in Hawaii on the new Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital in Kailua-Kona.

For more information about The Marine Mammal Center in Morro Bay call (805) 771-8302 or email To learn more about The Marine Mammal Center or make a donation visit


Photos courtesy of the Marine Mammal Center:

A young harbor seal patient, too weak to eat on his own, receives a meal via tube-feeding at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. © Dina Warren, The Marine Mammal Center

The Marine Mammal Center team rescues an adult California sea lion injured on rocks in San Mateo County in 2012. ©The Marine Mammal Center

Front entrance to The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. ©David Wakely