Walk through a harbor on the Pacific coast and more likely than not, you will be greeted by a chorus of barks from California sea lions. Their populations were dangerously declining in the 1960s, but since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, populations have rebounded beautifully. Bolstering these population growths are marine mammal rehabilitation centers along the Pacific coast. This past summer I had the incredible opportunity to work at one such center, the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute (CIMWI). Located in Santa Barbara, California, the goal of CIMWI is to positively impact marine conservation through rescue, rehabilitation, research, and education, improving overall ocean health as a result.
Over the course of the summer, I took part in rescues of sick or injured marine mammals, rehabilitation efforts, and ultimately the rewarding experience of releasing rehabilitated patients that had reached an ideal weight and health status to the wild. The majority of patient load were California sea lion pups. On initial intake, body weights were obtained, body dimensions measured with measuring tape, and while one person restrained, another person got a pinprick of blood from the tail vein to check blood glucose levels. Glucose levels would determine whether or not patients needed dextrose supplementation to their diet. Over time I and the rest of the CIMWI team monitored the health of, completed medical records, medicated, and attended to basic husbandry needs (such as cleaning enclosures, feedings, and providing fresh water) for patients.
Watching patients progress over time was truly rewarding as formerly emaciated pups gradually put on weight and energy levels heightened. As pups grew closer and closer to release status they were moved from more isolated enclosures designed to promote a lower stress healing environment to larger outdoor enclosures designated for housing larger groups of healthier animals. Amidst a chorus of barking, patients were lead one by one into an alternate enclosure to facilitate medicating individuals and allowing for cleaning of the formal enclosure. When patients were all gathered in a newly cleaned area, pounds of fatty herring were provided as the animals freely fed in a splashing frenzy. As we cleaned their former enclosures the ruckus dulled as the animals grew satiated and lounged in the afternoon sun.
Finally, nearing the end of my summer, all of our hard work culminated to the gratifying return of our patients to the ocean. The morning of the release, I, along with other members of the CIMWI team, met up with Jennifer Levine, CIMWI’s stranding operations and animal care manager. We loaded rehabilitated patients in transport kennels onto a boat captained by the Channel Islands Packers – a cruise organization that services the Channel Island National Park. Boarding the boat along with campers, hikers and other members of the general public destined for the national park, we answered questions about our sea lion patients and rehabilitation efforts in general. Seeing fellow travelers’ faces light up with interest and concern for these animals and hearing them cheer as the animals dove into park waters reinforced my belief that outreach is key to conservation efforts. Because these individuals had the chance to see those animals released and return to the sea, maybe they were able to get a glimpse of why our oceans are worth saving. By that same vein, it wasn’t just our patients that benefited that day – the dolphins that flanked the boat, the humpbacks breaching on the return trip and every single person on the boat that got to take in the experience – it was a win for all of us.
I would like to extend my gratitude to the Channel Islands Marine Wildlife Institute Board of Directors, including President Dr. Samuel Dover DVM and Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Ruth Dover, for allowing me to have this experience. I’d also like to thank Strandings and Animal Care Manager, Jennifer Levine, and all the dedicated volunteers and colleagues that worked alongside me for their continued support and efforts in marine rehabilitation.
Nycole Cole, Class of 2020, is interested in aquatics and conservation. originally from the west coast, she hopes to one day work in marine conservation or in government work. she enjoys running with her friends and dog, and surfing with her brother.