Seal of Excellence.

I’ve been thinking lately, with fond memories, of my time volunteering at The Marine Mammal Center. Some of those poignant thoughts were recently resurrected with the news of some odd rescues going on along the Monterey-San Francisco line quite recently. I’ve never been an animal activist, as I like the taste of them too much, and I am often overwhelmed by the sheer number of environmental issues that beg focus by human resources and energy. So my decision to spend a year volunteering with the Center wasn’t really about pure biological altruism, but moreso to delve into an area that had always fascinated me–Marine Biology–and get my hands dirty with some training and work that appealed to my desire for challenge and new experiences.

And I got to dissever dead things, and care for living things. That was cool too. And bones. Did I mention bones?

I’ve been getting regular updates from the Center by e-mail, and spring is the time that it starts getting very busy with “check-ins,” as March is the start of seal-pupping season. Many elephant seal pups get lost or discombobulated, lose track of their parents and feeding grounds, and strand themselves ashore. Of course they then have no way to care for themselves, and that’s where we come in. So I’ve been vicariously able to keep tabs on the new patients as they come, through pictures and the like, and I wanted to introduce you to the first patients of the season. They won’t stay this cute for long, believe me.

This is the first harbor seal to be admitted this year, called Neely. Anybody need a coat? Heheh.

Because the first picture just wasn’t cute enough…

The Center’s very first black-coated elephant seal pup, Sandy, looking sufficiently confused. He’s going to get about ten times bigger, in no time at all. I swear that these guys sound like monkeys and chickens fused into some cruel experiment. Whomever accused seals of barking are out of their minds.

After you recover from wetting your pants with glee, please do keep in mind that these seemingly innocuous little things smell like Death, itself. Or pretty darn close to it. And they nip, which can hurt…if you’re naked, and have no skin.

Another interesting local happening in the SF area is the stranding of a sea lion on one of the Bay Bridge pylons, which if you think about it is pretty much impossible due to its height above the waterline and inaccessibility. But it happened, and CSLs in particular often get trapped in the darndest places. No one has any idea of how he got there, but the Center was sent out to nab him, and now he’s Topside enjoying some herring malts until he can take care of himself and promise that he won’t do any more bungie-jumping. Because really, there is no other viable explanation.

The rescue workers needed a lever to get this lazy SOB into a carrier. Cute, yes. Smart, no.

This shows you how far up the pylon is from the waterline, and how difficult it must have been for the CSL to get up there. I mean, there’s a barbed-wire fence! Maybe we should hire him for SpecialOps or something…

One of my fondest memories of that year was the simple ritual of getting my stuff together on a Wednesday night and driving out along the winding back-roads to get to the Center, sequestered nest-like on an abandoned government missile silo in the beautiful Headlands of Marin. Many visitors from Scotland have said that this area is the most like the Highlands they’ve ever seen outside of home. I’d agree, but on a smaller, and drier, scale. When you get through the tunnel that links the Golden Gate Bridge approach to the rest of the Headlands, things start to take on a distinctly Neptunian smell, and thoughts wind themselves to things nautical and sea-weedy. I very much miss that drive, especially, and the expectation of seeing the crew at the Center, all of whom are great people, and have established themselves as fast new friends, while remaining from different backgrounds and having diverse interests. There was not one ounce of bureaucracy or sectarianism, and seeing familiar, smiling faces every week was certainly something to look forward to.

I mean, there we were, every week until two in the morning: crawling along the edge of the map, and nobody on the outside ever knew just what we were doing up there. Yet there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from slogging around in caustic seal poop, wrangling these briny behemoths while avoiding slapping fins and nipping snouts. With knowing glances, we’d casually shove tubes down throats, and dodge projectile-vomit while focusing our animal empathies on calmness so as not to incite a cackling revolt. And then there was the time with the six-foot, 400-lb sea lion, Killer…

A shot of the main row between the cages and the Chartroom in the background. A $5 million rebuilding project should be going into effect pretty soon, so the whole Center will be getting a major facelift. Hopefully, we’ll be getting hot tubs and masseuses, as well.

Here’s me in the fish kitchen, desperately resisting a request to take some fecal samples.

While I’m sure he’d kill me if he saw this, I wanted to introduce you to Garlynn’s best impression of an elephant seal… Not bad, eh?

On my last night there, before packing off to Scotland, we managed to take a group shot, as unruly and cagey as the animals themselves. This is only about three-quarters of the Wednesday night crew, but most of the regulars.

Finally, a parting morning shot of San Francisco Bay from the Bridge approach and Headlands. Thank you to Carrie for this amazing shot.

Those were very good times, and one of the first things I plan to do when I get back is head on up for some more friendly poop-slogging. Wanna come?

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