It’s a sunny morning in early July, and the glittering waters at Otter Cove – a small inlet on the northern Pebble Beach coast – are teeming with wildlife.
Sea otters float and roll atop a canopy of kelp forest. Seabirds dance through the air above. Harbor seals bask on rocks.
Along the cove is a private beach about 50 feet long that, in the coming minutes, will serve as the runway for three rehabilitated harbor seal pups – Chin Chin, Yalma and Ms. Annee – to shuffle back into the wild.
The beach is along the property of a beautiful Pebble Beach estate owned by Melanie and Richard Lundquist, who recently pledged $1 million to the The Marine Mammal Center, a Sausalito-based nonprofit that rescues marine mammals.
“This is a special place,” Executive Director Jeff Boehn says. “It’s a beautiful, quiet cove, and everywhere I’m looking I’m seeing marine mammals.”
About 40 percent of the center’s rescued mammals come from along the coast of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. Upon being rescued, the animals are first triaged in the nonprofit’s small facility in Moss Landing for usually about 24 hours, receiving fluids, food and medical care, before being trucked to the center’s primary facility in Sausalito.
It’s been a busy few years for the Marine Mammal Center: After averaging between 600-800 rescues per year from San Luis Obispo County to Mendocino County, that number spiked in 2015 due to toxic levels of domoic acid off the California shore.
The center rescued between 1,800-1,900 animals in 2015, and 1,000 in 2016, numbers that tested the capacity of the organization’s resources.
“It could possibly be a new normal with warmer coastal waters,” spokesperson Laura Sherr says.
The pups being released this morning, which were rescued in the spring, all have similar stories: Chin Chin was found orphaned and malnourished at Seadrift Beach in Marin County; Yalma was found in the same condition at Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica; Ms. Annee was found on a hard-to-access beach in San Mateo County and treated for malnutrition, facial swelling and corneal inflammation in both eyes.
One common reason pups are abandoned by their mothers, Sherr says, is because she will go off hunting and return to the beach to find one or more people ogling at, or perhaps worried after, her pup.
“They’re like little fluffballs,” Sherr says of the newborns, adding they’re often just a few hours or days old when abandoned. Once a mother sees humans near them, Sherr says, she flees for good.
Back at the beach, a group of volunteers approach the sand carrying three slightly modified dog carriers, each with a rehabbed pup inside. The volunteers line them up at the top of the beach.
The Lundquists and Boehm swing the carrier doors open, and Chin Chin, Yalma and Ms. Annee – all about 2 months old and 3-feet long – reluctantly start shuffling to the water.
When they each reach the lapping sea, they look back toward their rescuers, and it’s easy to imagine they’re saying goodbye. And thank you. Then they dip into the waves, and are gone.
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A month later, when visiting the Marine Mammal Center location in Moss Landing, Julia O’Hern – the facility’s operation manager and only full-time employee – reports there are no animals presently onsite. Some were shipped off to Sausalito the evening prior – where there’s a far bigger facility with pools, and on-staff veterinarians – and some are arriving from San Luis Obispo County later in the day.
She offers a tour of the facility, which is centrally located off Dolan Road to serve the entire Monterey Bay. After passing through a break room, O’Hern walks into a small room that is half-doctor’s office, half-kitchen. Here, volunteers defrost fish, make fish mash – a “fish slurpee,” she says – and manually feed animals with large syringes connected to thick tubes that placed in the animals’ mouths.
The animals are also given fluids, and veterinarians in Sausalito prescribe medications as necessary from afar.
O’Hern then walks outside to a row of large individual chain-link cages where all but the smallest animals are held.
Four volunteers then emerge from the building and begin loading up a pickup truck. Volunteer Tammy Slenkovich says she’s been getting a lot of calls about a sea lion near Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey that may have been bitten by shark. Within a minute, they wheel out.
O’Hern watches the truck drive off. “It’s a community effort,” she says.