Monday, February 19, 2007


Last year on Earth Day Roger and I signed up to take a Marine Mammal Stranding Network training. We were placed on the email list and were sent periodic email updates. But personnel changes meant a delay in training, and there wasn't one until this past Saturday. Here's our report.

It was interesting, but far too disorganized to be of much value. We spent the first hour talking about how to fill out Level A Responder forms. It's the report that is ultimately submitted to the NOAA Fisheries. The presenter was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but not particularly adept at explaining why these forms are important and what we, as network volunteers, should be looking for to be able to adequately fill the forms out, when we observe stranded animals. The second hour was more interesting and probably should have preceded the first, because it introduced us to the mammals we might encounter (seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises, whales) when called to check out a stranding. We did learn a few tricks, like how to tell the difference between a male California Sea Lion and a female Steller Sea Lion (which can be the same size)-- the male has the scrotum. How we're going to get close enough to see that is a trick they did not cover.

We learned that most of the work volunteers do is to identify dead mammals, approximate the decomposition level, try to determine if the mammal has died as a result of human activity, take a gps reading, and then someone determines what to do with the carcass:
1. Left at site
2. Buried
3. Rendered
4. Towed
5. Sunk
6. Frozen for Later Examination
7. Landfill
8. Other
We were not told who determines the disposition of the animal, or how that determination is made. If the stranded animal is a baby harbor seal which accounts for most of the calls, volunteers would take shifts making sure humans, dogs, and other predators are kept away. Baby harbor seals are often left onshore for considerable periods of time while mom is out hunting. They are not stranded.

If I could redesign the training I would present photographs of stranded animals, with examples of different stages of decomposition. I would also show pics of the results of human activity, netting, propeller wounds, etc. Then, I would use those examples to show how to fill out the paperwork. Seems a more logical approach.
When we first signed on to the volunteer email list, a note was sent about a stranded baby harbor sea, last July. We were not "trained" yet, but we went down to photograph the baby from an appropriate distance. We assumed that at some point, if the mother did not return the seal would be rescued and brought someplace for care and rehabilitation. Turns out, the stranding network doesn't do many rescues. There aren't enough facilities to handle the number of mammals that are stranded. I understand that that baby died. I had hoped that part of what we would learn is how to assist in rescues, but that's not the plan, unless an animal can be safely returned to the sea.

The presenter did tell us a very wild story. All marine mammals are covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Humans are not to move, touch, or disturb the animals; not drive them back into the water; not pour water on a seal, seal lion, or sea otter; and, not try to feed them. Of course, humans don't always pay attention to rules. So sometimes they get close enough to these animals to be bitten by them. They don't often report this because in order to sustain such an injury, they have to be breaking the law. However, one woman was compelled to report being bitten by a baby harbor seal, after she contracted a marine mammal disease. The wild part of the story is that she was bitten while trying to breast feed the baby seal. Oy. There are just some things about human behavior I wish I didn't know.

P.S. When I look at seals, I have to say, it never once occurs to me that they should balance a ball on their nose. But of course, when I look at a bear, I never think, "Wow, I'd like to see that creature on a bicycle." Maybe it's just me.

1. Top photo taken at the Santa Cruz wharf where many California Sea Lions lounge. We can't see the scrotum, but we're assuming this is a male CSL.
2. The baby harbor seal we photographed last summer.

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