A Sanctuary across the Golden Gate, The Marine Mammal Center & Headlands

2 07 2013
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Some of the items found in sea lions and seals

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Docents show pelts of seal (left) and sea lions to exhibit the differences

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Netting from a sperm whale, The Ghost Below

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Volunteers use wood boards to control seals while teaching feeding behaviors

Most summer tourists visiting SF set out on the Golden Gate bridge wearing shorts and t-shirts and only make it halfway across due to the whipping wind and fog that blows in off the ocean in the summertime. That is a shame because they never get to experience the incredible Marin Headlands just a little further across.

Taking a car is recommended as you will have the opportunity to explore this incredible area of California. The Marin Headlands is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and has its own incredible history. Known for the Miwok Indian tribe that inhabited the area, military activity and a NIKE missile site created to protect the United States from attacks from the west, the history is rich, but the history goes back well before humans discovered this beautiful pocket on the coast. This incredible area was formed millions of years ago. The beauty of the California coast was created by violent earth movements. Millions of years ago this area was where the Pacific Ocean plate and the North American plate connected in a process called subduction. The heavier Pacific plate ended up being pushed below the continental plate and creating an area of geothermal activity further inland. While this was happening layers of ocean sediments were sheared off of the oceanic plate and deposited on top of the continental plate leaving the remnants that created this incredible land mass. If you drive up the headlands just next to the Golden Gate Bridge you will start to climb quickly until you are at a height above the bridge. To your right along the road you will see amazing orange/red striated layers of rock. This is radiolarian chert, the deposits that were once at the bottom of the ocean. Pretty incredible to imagine as you look down the cliff. There are also deposits in the area of pillow basalt that was created by the volcanic activity of underwater vents.

Driving around the headlands you will see great places to stop and have a picnic, gorgeous vistas of the bay and San Francisco and unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge.  It’s worth taking the time to visit the 15o year old Point Bonita Lighthouse, take a hike and hunt (but don’t pick!) wildflowers and view the annual raptor migrations.  A great friend of mine, Peter Palmer, has a website called the Headlands Report, check out his site for some fun hikes and advice on hiking.  http://theheadlandsreport.blogspot.com

Another great activity to pursue is a visit to The Marine Mammal Center.  I can’t believe that I have been in San Francisco since 1996 and only recently made my first visit to this amazing site!  The Marine Mammal Center exists to care for ill, abandoned or injured seals and sea lions.  When animals are brought to the center they are cared for by an incredible crew of 1,000 volunteers that spend time doing everything to rehab these animals.

One of the more pungent jobs is in the fish kitchen where meals are prepped for the animals almost constantly.  Visitors have the opportunity to learn about the perils that humans pose to sea life (such as nets, plastic bottles, and trash), view the seals and sea lions and watch volunteers teach feeding to juvenile animals, there is even an autopsy room (it is an optional area of the center and protected so that if it’s not your thing you don’t have to visit).  I was very intrigued and was able to watch an actual autopsy live.  Visits to the center are free, but I recommend a docent lead tour, the docents have a wealth of knowledge to share.

Support of the center with donations is very important, this year there has been an incredible increase in injured and abandoned animals along the California coast.  The center has had a large influx of animals brought in his year.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported a “unusual morbidity event is occurring for California sea lions in Southern California”.  Over 1,000 malnourished weak sea lions were rescued this year off the California coast, but in 2012 the number was 100.  This year the Marine Mammal Center has twice its normal tenants, 165 seals and sea lions.  Animals are often malnourished or emaciated (stranded by their mothers for reasons unknown),  or suffer from human interaction such as ocean entanglement or even gunshot wounds.  Sadly cancer is also rampant among the population of sea lions autopsied here.  Amazingly the studies conducted at the Marine Mammal Center can help the world investigate marine mammal health, effectively a harbinger for our own health.  The center holds more than 25 years of tissue samples and cells in a deep freeze bunker with a back up generator to ensure that this information is not lost.

Many of the displays at the center help raise awareness as to how fragile the marine environment is, and how easily humans can harm marine mammals.  Packing straps can confuse animals as they play with them, possibly eat them or become strangled in them, and plastic bottles and discarded bags can easily injure or strangle seals and sea lions.  A very striking exhibit called The Ghost Below shows how ghost netting discarded or lost in our oceans can injure sea life.  These nets can float for years.  Richard & Judith Lang created the exhibit with just part of 450 pounds of ghost net and trash that were found inside a dead sperm whale.  Their new interactive exhibit, Indra’s Net, was recently installed and allows messages of hope to be left for animals in distress.

Seals and sea lions are considered the canaries of the ocean, meaning that when we affect their subtle ocean ecosystem they show us very clearly a lot about the health of the ocean…  The hope is that through education we can better care for our oceans, learn more about recycling and restricting our use of plastics that can harm animals, and change our eating habits.  These small steps can make a huge impact.  With our help we may have a chance to save some of these very important animals.

How to help:

Visit the center, leave a donation and buy something (a shirt, a tour, a magnet!)

Volunteer at the center

Adopt a Seal or Sea Lion

http://www.marinemammalcenter.org/HMS-adopt

Run for the Seals August 17

Support America’s Cup Healthy Ocean Project by dining at one of their recommended restaurants that supports sustainable seafood

http://www.americascup.com/en/healthy-ocean-project/restaurant-challenge

Think about what you eat and download the Seafood Watch app

http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx

If you find a mammal in distress call 415 289- SEAL (7325)

http://www.nps.gov/goga/marin-headlands.htm

 

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