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Coastal Champions

By Corry Cook

Noatak, the bearded seal above, was given a temporary home at the Marine Mammal Center’s hospital in Sausalito. Trained volunteer responders.

Recent evacuations provide a window into the world of animal rescues and the heroes dedicated to saving California’s marine life. 

A 5-year-old bearded seal named Noatak swims with ease below the surface of his tank in clean, clear saltwater. He is part of an ongoing critical marine mammal research program at the University of California Santa Cruz that includes two adult dolphins and several seals and sea lions. On land, their human handlers are wearing masks, looking on in fear as wildfires rage in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. As smoke blankets UCSC’s Coastal Science Campus, ash begins to fall into the animals’ saltwater pools.

Had it been a summer day like any other, bearded seal Noatak and friends would be frolicking with crystal-blue sky above. However, this year’s ruthless fire season started early and with brutal force. No matter how wild the fires may burn in California, the mobilization and determination of animal lovers is nearly as swift. As the smoke clears, we find tremendous stories of courage, generosity and steadfastness in the face of danger and loss. And time spent with one local nonprofit in action proves that many of our state’s emergency response heroes rescue animals above — and below — the water’s surface.

The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito is the largest marine mammal hospital in the world and a not-for-profit global leader in marine mammal health, science and conservation. During these difficult times and year-round, the center responds to animals in need and ailing — whether from starvation, disease, entanglement and, now, wildfires. “We are very concerned about how wildfires may impact marine mammals, in particular their lungs, as they may inhale ash and particulates,” says Dr. Cara Field, medical director at the center. “And as the fires  raged in the Santa Cruz Mountains this summer, the animals’ home at UCSC also appeared to be under threat, requiring immediate action.” Still, moving and transporting multiple seals and sealions, several weighing over 400 pounds, posed big logistical challenges.

Marine Mammal Center’s Monterey Bay Operations transport an animal carrier moments after rescuing a young California sea lion in Moss Landing.

As eerie skies and threatening smoke engulfed the area, teams at UCSC and the center swiftly came together across hundreds of miles of coastline to get the job done. The Marine Mammal Center lent its personnel support, transport vehicles and hospital facilities to assist its partners at UCSC’sLong Marine Lab. “That includes the successful transport of a California sea lion, a ring seal, a harbor seal and two bearded seals to the center’s headquarters in Sausalito,” shares Field. “We didn’t hesitate to join in the effort to safely evacuate and offer refuge for our colleagues and these animals during such a distressing time.” In the end, all of the animals were successfully evacuated to the center and alternative facilities before UCSC’s Coastal Science Campus mandatory evacuation order went into effect.

Fueled by experts and volunteers alike, to date the center has given more than 23,000 marine mammals a second chance. That includes bearded seal Noatak and the other evacuated marine mammals who are now swimming safely back at UCSC’s Long Marine Lab. “There is no way that we could have made it through those overwhelming summer days without the professionalism, efficiency and genuine kindness that the center has shown us,” shared Dr. Colleen Reichmuth, research scientist at UCSC’s Institute of Marine Sciences. “Their transport and veterinary teams demonstrated unparalleled grace under (literal) fire.”

Where there’s smoke, it turns out, there’s hope.

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