In the mid-nineties I volunteered to work at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. The site was an old missile facility used during World War II converted to a rehab center for harbor seals, elephant seals and California sea lions. At any given time the facility housed 90 to 100 different marine mammals at all stages of rehabilitation.
With my busy work schedule I decided that Friday nights would be the best time to help, so I was off to buy a pair of slickers and a good pair of boots.
The trip from San Francisco to Sausalito is not a very long one, although without a vehicle it was fairly difficult. I would ride my bicycle the first few nights, a trip that took me over the Golden Gate Bridge and through the one lane tunnel that brought you to the Golden Gate Recreation Area. During the day the trip was fairly easy, but at one am it was a whole different story. Needless to say I quickly found another volunteer living close by that could pick me up for the trip over.
All volunteers began their time as fish sorter. Essentially you are given a 100 lb block of frozen fish that you have to thaw and separate. If the previous crew performed the correct procedure the fish were thawing when you arrived making the task much easier. Donning gloves I began the daunting task of pulling raw fish apart and placing them in various buckets to be used for feeding.
As the weeks went on, the new volunteers slowly graduated from sorter, to preparing the medicine, then making the ‘fish malt’, performing the ‘mucamist’, and ultimately to feeding and fish school. Mostly my job as I moved up in time and tenure was to make sure the veterinary on staff was protected when she went in to give the animals their shots, although I did get to tube feed and once was even given the opportunity for fish school.
For those of you not versed in the terminology above, fish malt is a mixture of heavy whipping cream, added to bring up the fat content of the atlantic herring that was being used, blended together using an industrial sized blender and fed through a tube. The mucamist was an asthma machine that was hooked into their cages which were covered by blankets, to help some of the diseased sea lions breath easier. And lastly, elephant seals do not really know how to fish, they learn to swim into schools of fish and just open their mouths to ingest whatever is in front of them at the time. Fish school was teaching the elephant seals to time the opening of their mouth so they would eat in captivity. Many would just let the frozen fish fall to the bottom and then they would starve ultimately having to be tube fed, which was not an easy task on a 300 lb elephant seal.
Since it was not the height of the season the number of animals was slowly decreasing as many were released back into the ocean. One of our tasks prior to release was to get a final weight on them. On one particular night we had twelve sea lions that were set to be released the next day. While many of you may have been to San Francisco and seen the sea lions on the floating piers down at Fisherman’s Wharf, let me remind you that they are not the playful creatures that they depict, many are vicious as I am sure you would be in the same situation.
The men of the group, and not to be chauvinistic, but the females that we worked with were all in the 90 to 120 lb range, especially the vet that could not have been more than 90 lbs, had to ‘herd’ the animals into a wheeled cage. We used ‘herding’ boards, basically plywood with handles to direct the sea lions. With your boot behind the board you would slowly move forward and try to get them to move toward the opening. At first try all twelve dove into the cage on top of each other.
The smallest of the sea lions was about 180 lbs, so it was pretty funny to watch all the animals climb into a six foot by eight foot box on wheels. It was not funny to try to get them to come out. It soon became our version of the keystone cops, every time we would get one out it would run around the cage for a few minutes with us chasing it and then jump back in. At one point since the cage was fairly large we had the door to the outside fence open and one dove into the bushes beyond the pen. We were not too concerned since there was still the compound fence to block the sea lions escape, although it was more ground that we had to chase it. Three of us tried to heard that one sea lion while the other two were left to deal with weighing the others.
After about an hour we finally had all their weights and could sit down for some oreo cookies we brought into the main building. I know the sea lions are fast swimmers but I never realized that they could move as fast out of the water.
Tube feeding the harbor seals was also quite an experience. If you have ever had to tube feed an animal then you know how difficult it can be, if not well lets just say you should try it sometime. Harbor seals are beautiful creatures and amazingly soft. They can have up to 10,000 hairs in one square inch on their body. To watch them struggle to eat is heart wrenching especially if you know that they are going to die.
To correctly tube feed the harbor seals you would prepare the fish malt and suck it into a large syringe. The tube was then inserted into the stomach of the seal and you had to listen to make sure it was properly inserted. If you missed you could flood their lungs with heavy whipping cream and fish pieces. Occasionally you would put your ear to the end of the tube and the seal would regurgitate whatever was in its stomach filling your ear with all kinds of nice things. Our vet would test the tube by blowing, to see if the lungs would fill with air instead of the stomach, something I did not like to do because I would rather have an ear full than a mouth full.
Sometimes one of the critters would die, and there was no shortage of humor to help keep the mood light. We had a picture once with a sea lion in full rigor wearing shades and holding a towel as if it were going to the beach. The diseased were usually the ones we could not help, and therefore we tried to lighten the situation. The ones that made everyone angry were the animals that were abused, either inadvertently caught in fishing nets or discarded fishing line, or even some that were used for shooting practice by some of the fisherman.
We had one in particular that had been shot in the head at close range with a pistol, probably had swam up to the edge of the boat in a playful way and was met with some drunken fisherman. We did finally end up releasing him and hopefully he is still swimming the oceans.
As the season wore on, the one am finish time became earlier and earlier, giving me enough time to get home change and go out for the evening. Not that I had much of a social life at that time, but I did enjoy going to the bar to relax after a long night of smearing fish on my clothes.
Many nights I would walk into my apartment on Greenwich Street with hip waders in tow and meet a handful of people preparing for the evening, dressed to the gilt for a night on the town. Me, smelling like fish, babbling about the sea lions, mostly met strange looks from many of the participants. But of course these were my Friday Nights in San Francisco, and I would not trade that for the world.