Otto is only a few months old, but he is already bigger than many human adults. Yet, by elephant seal standards, Otto is still quite small. That’s why he’s here, in an enclosure at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC) in Laguna Beach. Like most of the beautiful animals here at the center, Otto was rescued from right here in Orange County, and brought here to be rehabilitated. Under the careful watch of the veterinary team, he was able to put on weight, learn to catch fish, and be social with other elephant seal pups. Now, only a few months later, he is on the cusp of being released back into the Pacific Ocean to live a normal and healthy life.
In the wild, elephant seal pups nearly quadruple their weight in about four weeks. By the end of that first month, fed solely on a diet of milk rich in fats, they will weigh about 300 pounds! Otto is older than that, and not yet at that goal weight. Once he is, he will return home. His stay here has been smooth, just a few months, and his progression has been remarkable according to the staff. But I don’t see Otto as a patient of a unique animal hospital and shelter. All I see is the cutest creature with the biggest and most beautiful eyes ever.
Otto is not the only animal currently in the care of PMMC. On this Saturday in June, he is joined by more than thirty others: elephant seals, California sea lions, and harbor seals. He also has a staff of more than thirty, hundreds of volunteers, and a constant stream of visitors to keep him company. Those visitors come from all over Southern California to watch adorable animals, learn about the work of the center, and find out how they can help save these beautiful creatures.
PMMC has been operating in Laguna Beach for 51 years. Its building is a former equestrian barn tucked into the narrow space between a creek and the hills of Laguna Canyon. It isn’t exactly the space one would imagine housing the preeminent marine rescue organization in Orange County. And yet, here they are, using their small space as efficiently as possible. The original barn holds the more sick, newly rescued animals, and isn’t open to the general public. But inside, you can easily imagine an ICU unit at any top hospital. There are separate rooms for the animals – and they are all given names as soon as they come in – white boards with treatment plans and busy staff moving in and out. The only difference is the floor here is wet. These are marine mammals, after all.
Outside the barn are a number of enclosures with pools. Animals are separated by species, as well as by how far along they are in their treatment. A group of sea lion pups is taught to compete for food, as they would in the wild. They flop all over each other and run-up to the gate as they see me, hoping I’m coming with lunch. In another pool, a single harbor seal pup is playing with a fish that his medical team hopes he eats. But he seems to find more joy in pushing it around the pool with his nose. Fun fact: seals and sea lions only eat fish head first, so that the scales and fins don’t choke them.
Visitors to PMMC are able to watch the animals from outside the fences, and from a small platform that leads up to the second-story educational center. Tour guides explain that humans aren’t allowed to touch the animals – no matter how much we might want to kiss, pet, or snuggle them – so that they won’t see humans as approachable in the wild. It is also important to remember that the beautiful pups here are still sick and malnourished, and any contact with us can make their fragile health situations worse.
So what can we do to help? Most importantly, we can visit. The more people who learn about the beautiful native marine mammals, the more likely we humans are to protect them. Beyond that, we can help feed them. It takes about 150,000 pounds of fish to feed the animals at PMMC, and it costs about $1 per pound. So for as little as a single dollar, we can help provide the food that Otto and his friends need to gain weight and strength before being released. I sponsor a sea lion pup’s food for a week, which the center tells me is fifty pounds. $50 is a small price to pay for such a noble mission.
If you want to be involved even further, there are always slots for volunteers, ranging from helping to rescue animals – adults only – to beach cleanups here in Orange County. The more trash we remove, the less trash there is for a sea lion pup to choke on.
PMMC is small, but its work is certainly not. Over the years, thousands of beautiful animals like Otto have been rescued, nurtured back to health, and released back into the ocean to live. It is a place we should be very proud to have right here in Laguna Beach.
Jonathan Berg is the founder and editor of The Royal Tour, a travel blog for deeper thinkers (theroyaltourblog.com)