I Toured the World’s Largest Marine Mammal Hospital This Summer

The Marine Mammal Center, which is just eleven miles from downtown San Francisco, has been open to the public since June 3rd.

In any given year, the Marine Mammal Center could see up to 1,600 patients come in and out of their 2000 Bunker Road address in Sausalito, California. Perched in the Marin Headlands, overlooking both Rodeo Cove and Rodeo Lagoon, the animal hospital has a serene, almost meditative quality to it; you can feel the cool marine breeze tickle your uncovered flesh while admiring the center’s unique outdoor mural, for example.

But that stillness can be cut short when the young sea mammals at the facility decide to emit a sound one can only describe as part velociraptor with notes of a crying human child.

“We have to sometimes remind people that the animals are OK and that these are just normal vocalizations from elephant seal pups,” says Adam Ratner, the associate director of conservation education at the Marine Mammal Center, during my behind-the-scenes (BTS) tour I took this past summer of the establishment’s new upgrades and visitor experiences.

(Fun fact: If those eerie calls do come across as strangely familiar, it’s because you’ve likely heard them in some iteration on the big screen. Ratner told us that these vocalizations from sea lion pups at the center were actually used in the Jurassic Park films to create the sounds emitted by velociraptors. These sounds, too, appear virtually unedited as the grunting calls from the orcs in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well.)

“It can be a bit surprising for guests, but these are just normal sounds they would make in the wild,” Ratner waxes, both of us on the contemporized observation deck that sits two stories above the patient corridors, allowing guests to see gaggles of adoral sea mammals from a safe distance (for both parties).

Cinematic sequitur aside, the Marine Mammal Center — which closed to the public for over two years amid the pandemic’s height — offers an utterly unique affair for guests that simply doesn’t exist in any other American zoological facility.

Upon arriving, I was guided through the renovated visitor center, where a remodeling brought modern updates and cohesive conservation messaging to the 2,700-square-foot indoor space. I found my eyes dancing between various live-cam feeds of current patients at the hospital.

There, too, is something of a rudimentary, interactive lab exhibit where curious center-goers can look through a collection of slides by way of user-friendly microscopes; a small x-ray table is positioned in the center that has translucent images to examine; if you’ve wondered what the inside of a sea lion tooth looks like, here’s your chance to see one — up close.

Newly designed visitor center at Marine Mammal Center. (Photo: Courtesy of Marine Mammal Center)

(Adjacent to the visitor center is a quaint retail outlet that has curated products — all of which feature eco-friendly material and construct practices — that help support the hospital, as well as local makers who provide specific goods for the store. My affinity for acquiring black baseball caps was satiated after checking out with an environmentally-sustainable hat after I had completed my BTS tour.)

As enchanting as the indoor spaces of the center are, the focal point of the Marine Mammal Center fixates on the outdoor essence of the facility, erected from a massive former military base in 1975. The concrete structures at 2000 Bunker Road addressed have gone from storing rocket-propelled weapons to now offering temporary sanctuary for upwards of 160 blubbery patients at any given time.

During my visit, there were 133 marine mammals under the center’s umbrella of staff and volunteer care. Collectively, some 24,000 marine mammals along the California coast and the Big Island of Hawaii have been rescued and rehabilitated at the facility since it debuted nearly fifty years ago — an accomplishment made possible by the over 1,300 volunteers who, with the direction of accredited staff, help treat and rehabilitate sick and injured animals, 365 days a year.

Weaving through the center’s refreshed outdoor niceties — there’s a massive mural of an endangered southern sea otter that was designed and installed by San Francisco-based artist Cameron Moberg; an assemblage of enlarged photographs that subject scenes of marine mammals, both in the wild and at the center, from renowned wildlife photographer Bill Hunnewell (who also volunteers at the center) are displayed on an aqua-blue latticework of steel — is an exercise in paying attention to detail.

The handrails are slick with new paint. Freshly laid gravel underneath perhaps the most picturesque picnic tables in the Bay Area is leveled and free of trash. The glass windows that offer visitors a view inside the “Fish Kitchen Kiosk,” where all the patient’s meals are prepared, are without smudges.

The Marine Mammal Center can operate entirely off the solar power captured and converted from solar panels placed on top of the patient enclosures. (Photo: Courtesy of Matt Charnock)

The same can be said of the panels peering into the “Laboratory Kiosk” that is used by on-site zoological experts to conduct research into veterinarians and diagnose patients. All the facility’s interactive digital displays are comfortably positioned (so as to not make you strain either your neck or back) and pedestal surprisingly intuitive UX designs. There’s a sense of humble pride in what the comparatively small team at the Marine Mammal Center has been able to accomplish amid a global health crisis that‘s now claimed over a million American lives.

Animals that die on-site or are brought in from parts of the Bay Area are given complete autopsies to determine their cause of death—a means of research guests can choose to view from an observation window. (Photo: Courtesy of Matt Charnock)

I — and by proxy, you — as a visitor understand this on a mitochondrial level.

My behind-the-scenes glimpse into the rehabilitation and research work of the center only deepened my appreciation and respect for the Marine Mammal Center’s fastidious work ethic. Though the center intakes around nine types of marine mammal species, the vast majority of its patients this time of year consist of either abandoned and/or injured elephant seal pups that come in weighing, on average, a third of what they should at their months-old age. Come later in June, the bulk of admitted patients will be California sea lions.

Cute water dogs… but not to be fucked with. (Photo: Courtesy of Matt Charnock)

You would expect being in such proximity to well over a hundred sea mammals would inundate your olfactory receptors with pungent aromas of dead fish and hints of low tide. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth in my experience; I’ve spent the night at domiciles belonging to hookups that have exuded more offending odors.

Sliding barn doors move to reveal glass that BTS guests can look at patients. (Photo: Courtesy of Matt Charnock)

What was incredibly refreshing to understand during my guided tour is that the comfort of the patients takes primacy over boundary-free visitor engagement. Remember: These animals are all intended to be released back into the while — and, for most of them, this means being reintroduced to an undisclosed beach site in Point Reyes.

Misguided human interactions and associations could cause them to end up in a less-than-desirable situation. Or worse: killed.

I found myself awash with serotonin peering through the looking windows — all of which are hidden behind aesthetically pleasing black-steel barn doors — at harbor seal pups eyeing me back through the mylar. I was also fortunate enough during my visit to get within three feet of a napping elephant seal pup in quarantine, the two of us separated by a few inches on concrete and tempered silica.

An afternoon spent at the Marine Mammal Center is as much an experience in understanding the neighboring fauna we share the Bay Area with as it is an appreciation for this region’s peculiar perks. I struggle to think of a major city in the United States where you can, in the same afternoon, visit a 1,017-acre urban greenspace and explore one of the world’s modern-day zoological splendors.

The Marine Mammal Center is open to the general public. There is no price admission to enter the center, but goers must reserve a spot ahead of time to see, as this ensures on-site staff has proper time between booking windows to clean the indoor exhibits and adhere to Covid-19-safety protocol; all guests must wear masks indoors and vaccination status will be checked before entry. Paid guided tours will take place Friday through Monday beginning July 15, and cost $15 for adults and $7.50 for seniors and students. For more information on the Marine Mammal Center, visit marinemammalcenter.org.

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