A Little Center that does a lot of Good Work
Nancy Castillo’s three children, Charlice — 10, Eddie — 7, and Klarissa — 4, excitedly purchase two seals and a whale. They are shopping in the capsule-size gift shop at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, CA. Charlice and Eddie proudly hold their stuffed animals while younger sister, Klarissa, lovingly hugs her stuffed whale. Nancy has brought her children, not only to fill up the time on an off-school summer day, but also to, “teach them what is it that we can help out with the environment and the ocean,” Nancy says. “I decided to come over and have a look and have them learn about the animals.”
The center rescues, rehabilitates and releases seals and sea lions into their natural habitat while inspiring ocean stewardship. A large endeavor for the small red barn located within the cavernous Laguna Canyon. As head docent, Susan McLaughlin says, “The center covers 52 miles of Orange County’s coastline. We’re a little center that does a lot of good work.”
Oddly enough the idea for the mammal center began one summer day in 1971 through the careful eye of a child.
A young girl approached lifeguard, Jim Stauffer, and revealed a stranded seal on the beach. The Newport Beach lifeguard could do nothing to help. He went home and when he returned the next day he found the seal was still there. He couldn’t take it anymore, something had to be done. He went home, emptied his waterbed, lined it with the plastic from his mattress, filled it with water then brought the seal to his home. He along with the help of another lifeguard nursed the seal back to health.
It didn’t take long for the local community to hear the word about the lifeguards who aided ocean wildlife. The city of Laguna Beach provided an old barn for the mammal life-savers. Rent was $1 a month and that was the beginning of the mammal center.
Today the barn has expanded and several recovery pools have been installed for the growing number of seals and sea lions needing care. What began with three volunteers has evolved to over 100 volunteers and three full-time paid staff members. The center has cared for over 3,500 mammals since 1971.
Recently, the number of patients has increased. Susan reveals somberly, “In the past, we might have had 30–50 patients a year. Last year we cared for over 600 pinnipeds (an aquatic, carnivorous mammal with all four limbs modified into flippers.) Because the waters are hitting higher temperatures their food source is moving out further. The Moms have to leave their pups to find food. Many of them do not return, leaving their pups stranded and malnourished.”
Susan lights up as she describes the children’s education program, “We tell them a little bit about what we do, the trouble the waters are in and how they can help.” The center acquired a bus through a grant. The bus picks up 4th and 5th graders and brings them to the center. She talks about what the kids learn, “Over-fishing, plastic pollution harming our sea lions, bringing the plastic reduction of each household down, that’s what we do. We teach the kids how a piece of trash from their neighborhood can end up in the ocean and harm the animals and also how to reduce your trash, bringing awareness of how people can help.”
A large message for one person, but when Susan is asked what she finds the most rewarding, she tenderly says, “Being a part of a bigger picture. Watching these guys (referring to the seals) go from near death to going home. Coming in at 25 lbs to going home at 75 lbs. healthy and knowing that I’m a part of the process of doing something to help the oceans.”
Susan realizes the value of teaching children. Young as they may be she likes to tell the kids, “It’s your world now, we’ll keep doing our work but you’ve got to step up. Just because you can’t see the ocean doesn’t mean it’s not there and doesn’t mean it doesn’t need our help.”
As the Castillo’s end their day at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, Eddie says he liked learning that the seals “got saved and then returned them to the ocean.” Klarissa, says her favorite part of the day was the “seals.” When asked how many seals she saw she states “four.” There are currently 76 patients at the center. Klarissa and her awareness may be small but she understands the message — it’s all about the good work this little center is accomplishing for our mammals and our ocean.