Noe Valley Voice June 2005

Family Adventures Close to Home: The Marine Mammal Center

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

We're walking to the top of a hill above Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands when we suddenly hear a very odd sound--imagine an opera singer with laryngitis performing a duet with a dog--emanating from the Marine Mammal Center. My son Miles, 9, and our friend Jane, also 9, stop in their tracks.

"What do they keep in there?" Jane asks, not without a little drama.

"Sounds like a torture chamber," Miles adds.

I have to admit that the noise seems out of place in the tranquil hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a few miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Hawks circle above, deer dot the hillside, and the air is filled with insect sounds--in between the odd brays of the noisy marine mammal.

We enter the center's rustic compound and head immediately to the fenced-in pen from which the sound is coming. There, we find a small harbor seal staring at us through the chainlink fence.

"No way was that seal making that sound," Miles says. "It had to be a giant one. Something like that guy."

He points to the six-foot-tall bronze elephant seal statue at the edge of the property.

On cue, the harbor seal lifts his head and makes the amazing noise again.

Andrew Geiser, a volunteer guide at the center, shares a rumor that the folks from Industrial Light & Magic, the Marin-based special effects studio, recorded the peculiar sounds of the animals at the Marine Mammal Center for use in the dinosaur film Jurassic Park.

Miles and Jane now consider the seal a movie star.

The Marine Mammal Center is the largest marine mammal facility in the world. Each year, it rescues, rehabilitates, and releases between 600 and 800 sea lions, seals, and other types of marine mammals who have been discovered stranded along the California coast from San Luis Obispo to the Oregon border. A non-profit with a paid staff of just 40 people, the center relies on a network of more than 800 volunteers, who do everything from population-monitoring to rescuing to feeding the seals at the facility. In late May, the center had 78 "patients"--22 California sea lions, 19 Pacific harbor seals, and 37 northern elephant seals.

The center treats the animals, but also studies them and educates the public about the role of these mammals (not fish!) in the ocean's ecosystem. It also tells people what to do should they encounter a distressed seal. Basically, the message is: Leave the animal alone, get a good description, and call the Marine Mammal Center at 415-289-SEAL.

"When an animal is rescued, it's usually trained volunteers who get it to the center," Geiser explains.

Why would a seal be washed up on the beach? "The animal might be injured or malnourished," says our guide. "Younger ones tend to get separated from their mothers."

Geiser demonstrates the rescue technique, ducking behind a battered plywood board equipped with a handle on the back. "You have to squat down low behind the board so they can't see you," he says. "They're already in distress and we try not to traumatize them any further."

"Don't you get splinters?" asks Jane, pointing out the numerous nicks, scratches, and tooth marks that pock the board.

Geiser smiles. "Not too many," he says. "These marks come from the animals. "Sometimes they get scared and charge the rescuers."

"So it's like a shield," Miles says.

Geiser tells us that adult seals and sea lions can travel up to 15 miles per hour in the sand.

"That's fast!" Jane says, surveying the dozen or so seals in the front row of pens, each of which is equipped with a round tank that resembles an above-ground swimming pool. "These guys look like they only want to lay around in the sunshine."

Geiser assures her that they can move, and demonstrates the undulating body motion they employ to lumber through the sand. "They're smart too," he adds. He points to the pens on the left side of the facility where the fences are a couple of feet higher than those surrounding the standard pens. "We found out the hard way that adult sea lions can climb over a six-foot fence. They can also open gates."

A cadre of volunteers, clad in waders and rubber gloves, emerges from the shack at the back of the facility, and the quiet is shattered by dozens of seals barking.

"Feeding time?" I ask.

Geiser tells us that the group is actually going to perform final evaluations on a pair of seals who are ready for release. We follow them to a pen where a half-dozen hearty-looking seals curiously watch as a veterinary technician prepares a syringe. Three volunteers, armed with a bath towel and one of the battered plywood shields, enter the pen and the seals start a chaotic ballet, barking and flapping their arms as they weave about in the pen.

"We're looking for Cloudy," the vet tech calls out.

With admirable precision, the trio identifies Cloudy by his markings and tag, and herds him away from the group. The man with the bath towel wraps it around Cloudy's torso and straddles him. The technician enters the pen, her eight-inch syringe at the ready.

"Oooh," says Jane, fanning her face. "I'm getting really freaked out."

A volunteer with a clipboard assures her that Cloudy will be okay. "In fact, he's getting his final checkup before we release him," she says.

"That's good," Jane says, but she keeps her back turned as Cloudy's blood sample is drawn.

Miles, on the other hand, can't take his eyes off the procedure. "It's just like when I had my blood drawn," he says.

I can't help but wish that the volunteer who is gently but firmly holding Cloudy had been with us that day.

The group releases Cloudy, who slides into the pool, apparently none the worse for his experience.

"If all is well, he'll be returned to the beach where he was found, and released," Geiser tells us.

"That's good," Jane says. She skips away before the group starts to draw blood from Cloudy's penmate.

Miles and Jane wander around the center's property, checking out a pile of calcified whalebones and a case that displays the skulls and pelts of various marine mammals. The kids pose next to the bronze statue and watch as a large sea lion swims circles in his private pool. The atmosphere here is quiet and mellow and respectful of the animals' needs.

"If I were a seal, I'd probably like it here because the people are nice," says Jane. "But then I'd want to go home to the ocean."

We hike down the hill and return to the warm expanse of Rodeo Beach, where we eat a picnic lunch and watch a healthy seal play in the waves.

"Have you ever been at the Marine Mammal Center?" Miles calls out.

And above the sound of the pounding surf, we hear a faint bark.


The Marine Mammal Center's hospital facility is open every day (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day) between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Volunteer docents are on hand on weekends and holidays to answer questions. Admission is free, but the non-profit accepts donations and offers memberships that help support its mission.

From Noe Valley, the center is about a 25-minute drive, and there is ample parking at the facility and at Rodeo Beach at the bottom of the hill. To learn more about the Marine Mammal Center, go to or call 415-289-7325.

Directions from San Francisco: Go north on Highway 101 across the Golden Gate Bridge. Take the second exit (Alexander Avenue) after crossing the bridge. Stay to your left on the ramp and follow the signs for Highway 101 South (this will bring you under the freeway to the other side). Just before the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge, look for Conzelman Road on your right with signs for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) and the Marin Headlands. Turn right onto Conzelman Road. Follow this road until it forks at McCullough Road. Turn right onto McCullough Road, heading downhill. At the bottom of the hill, turn left onto Bunker Road. Follow Bunker Road for about three miles. Alongside Rodeo Lagoon, the road forks and you will see a sign on your right for the Marine Mammal Center. Bear right up the hill and follow the signs.