Pacific Marine Mammal Center | Laguna Beach

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By Carisa Carlton

sea lions laguna beach

Sea lion released by PMMC on December 8, 2013

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach is a 501(3)(c) permitted facility that rescues, rehabilitates, and releases marine mammals stranded along the 53 miles of Orange County coastline. They provide programs, including school field trips and tours, designed to educate and raise awareness of the marine environment in an impactful manner. And, their research assists marine organizations and biologists globally.

This year marks the busiest marine rescue year in the history of Laguna Beach’s Pacific Marine Mammal Center, according to Marine Biologist and Executive Director, Keith Matassa. For reasons still unknown, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, who mostly rehabilitates pinnipeds (often generalized as seals) has seen 370 rescues this year whereas they average 120 rescues in other years.

Each year, the cause of marine mammal deaths differs. Some years, marine mammals may be suffering from a zoontonic disease, such as seal finger, which causes debilitating joint inflammation that has historically been treated with amputation of the affected digits. Other years, such as this year, pinnipeds are suffering from unusually low weights, which means some sort of starvation is happening. Something in the food chain changed. Investigation into this unusual mortality event is currently in full force, and stabilization of the marine reserves is more important than ever.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center conducts a necropsy, an autopsy on animals, to determine the cause of death on all marine animals that die on the Orange County coast. “The tissue [from the animals] contains a wealth of knowledge. Examining the tissue helps improve our techniques to take care of the animals,” explains Matassa.

sea lions laguna beach

Sea lion released on December 8, 2013 with satellite attached to his back.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center research conducted on pinnipeds shows what is happening in the environment, and it helps predict future occurrences of disease. Seals are on the top of the food chain; they are top predators. The diseases they contract, we can contract. These diseases are called zoontonic diseases. Conducting necropsies enables us to create better ideas, plan for the future, and ultimately resolve issues. For example, we can develop treatment plans, medications, and prevention measures using the information we obtain from necropsies.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center has an intensive care unit with heated floors, swimming pools, and individual medical care plans with customized feeding formulas. They are a hospital for seals. They also disentangle whales from fishing nets and they are equipped to hold stranded dolphins until they can transfer them to Sea World for rehabilitation.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center strives to keep the seals wild, so human interaction is minimized to only what is necessary. Each seal has its own individual personality, and they are almost always playful. When I observed 6 sea lions at the center, they were jumping in and out of the water and sliding across the pool’s edge like Tom Cruise sliding across the floor in socks to Bob Segar’s ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center puts satellite tags on some of the pinnipeds to track their progress and behavior. The $3,300 satellite price tag is too costly to put on all the marine mammals they rehabilitate and release, but every animal is tagged with a number that helps marine biologist researchers identify them. Some rehabilitated seals have been spotted years after they were released and their progress and longevity post-release provides valuable information. Females are always tagged on the right front foot, and males are tagged on the left. Watch this video of a successful release (video created by a local child):


A visit to Pacific Marine Mammal Center provides a fascinating up-close educational experience to both adults and children of all ages. If you have a choice between Sea World and Pacific Marine Mammal Center, choose the latter, particularly if you are escorting a child. Keep in mind, however, Pacific Marine Mammal Center is not fancy, it’s a hospital for marine mammals.

Access on Laguna Canyon Road is convenient unless you drive past it. No easy, legal u-turn can be maneuvered, so drive slowly and look closely for their blue and white sign. Consider donating $500 to support the research and rehabilitation while sponsoring a classroom of 35 students.


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Author: Carisa Carlton

Carisa Carlton is the Editor in Chief of Laguna Beach Gazette. Learn more about Carlton at .

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