Charities We Love is a monthly series featuring inspirational charities from around the world. At We Are Travel Girls we care about giving back and hope this series will help our readers learn about charities and non-profit organizations that are doing incredible work. This month we are excited to feature The Marine Mammal Center, which is an organization dedicated to ocean conservation through marine rescue, veterinary science, and education.
Growing up, I was surrounded by animals – from pet cats and parrots to the stories of cougars and hawks my mom would bring home from work as a wild animal trainer. I’ve always felt an unwavering sense of loyalty to animals and as I came to realize the devastation these companions of mine were facing because of human impact, I knew I’d found a purpose.
My drive one sunny afternoon revealed a sought-after view of the Golden Gate Bridge draped over the city by the Bay – a sight I hadn’t seen before. As I continued, I quickly found myself immersed in a landscape wildly different from where I was not ten minutes before. Driving through the Marin Headlands, I was on my way to The Marine Mammal Center for an internship. Little did I know, those few weeks were just the beginning.
When the internship ended in the fall, I graduated from college and joined the working world, but I couldn’t escape the nagging voice in my head that kept telling me I was hooked on the place. What I soon realized was that the Center embodies all that I want to do to serve our fragile ocean and the animals that call it home.
Every day, the Center advances global ocean conservation through marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation, scientific research, and education. I knew I needed to find my way back there and am fortunate enough to have done just that, only this time on a permanent basis. And I’ve met some incredible people along the way.
BUILDING CONNECTIONS THROUGH RESCUE & REHABILITATION
The Marine Mammal Center is the brainchild of three locals motivated by their passion to rescue sick, injured and orphaned marine mammals. Since 1975, the Center has deployed thousands of response volunteers across our 600-mile rescue range along the California coast, spanning from Mendocino to San Luis Obispo counties, as well as Hawai´i Island.
Members of the public call our 24-hour hotline when they come across a marine mammal in distress. On the other end of that line are dispatch volunteers and staff members such as Erin Hanahoe. As the Response Coordinator, Erin has many responsibilities, including managing the transportation of rescued marine mammals and organizing their release back to the wild.
Erin recalls memories from when she was a little girl of sailing in San Francisco Bay with her parents – moments that would shape her future. As a young adult, Erin explored environmental science in college, field biology in Hawai´i, research in Alaska, service-dog training in California and so much more.
Through all that, the one thing that stayed constant was Erin’s desire to work at the Center. One of her volunteer roles in Northern California brought her to the Center on occasion. She found herself impressed by the work but seeing the volunteers’ passion and dedication for the cause ignited something in her. Erin knew the Center was where she needed to be.
WILDLIFE RESCUE AND REHABILITATION
Erin came to know that marine mammals like California sea lions serve as a window to the overall health of the ocean. Marine mammals adapt well – it’s a fact of life for them. When marine mammals show signs of distress, it’s a red flag that something is out of balance in the ocean.
Today, Erin helps bring those sick animals to the Center so our experts can figure out what brought them ashore in the first place. Sometimes, the answer to that question can directly impact human health. For instance, when our veterinarians see an increase in sea lions suffering from domoic acid toxicosis, a condition caused by a biotoxin that can be found in seafood delicacies such as crab and shrimp, we sound the alarm to public health officials who then regulate the distribution of seafood to our grocery stores and restaurants.
ANIMAL RESCUE HOTLINE
During spring and summer, our busiest time of year for rescues, Erin says the rescue dispatch office gets anywhere from 100 to 300 calls per day. When Erin first started working at the Center, it was just her and a few volunteers who managed the phone lines, and it was a struggle to keep up with all the calls coming in.
One of the accomplishments Erin is most proud of during her time at the Center is the work she did building out our rescue dispatch office so that we could respond to more calls. Not only did this allow us to help more suffering marine mammals, but we can now serve more concerned members of the public.
Erin gets her fulfillment in bridging connections with the community. The Center thrives because of compassionate and generous people who support our work, and caring for a wide variety of patients allows our staff to comprehensively educate future ocean stewards.
INSPIRING FUTURE OCEAN STEWARDS
As the world’s largest marine mammal rehabilitation facility and teaching hospital, hundreds of students and professionals come through our doors every year to learn from our experts. The increased challenges our ocean is facing has created a dire need for more readily trained marine science professionals. The Center trains them with the skill sets needed to care for and learn from the increasing number of suffering marine mammals.
If I believe in anything, it’s that the fate of our ocean and its inhabitants depends on each of us taking action. We need to come together to support a network of scientists and stewards to protect our shared ocean environment for future generations. Dr. Cara Field, the Center’s staff veterinarian, shares this vision too.
DOCTOR CARA FIELD’S WORK AT THE CENTER
Cara is one of those rare people who knew exactly what she wanted to do for living at a very young age – she wanted to save animals. As a small child, she could be found turning disrupted sea stars right side up and saving other tide-pool dwellers near her home.
During veterinary school, Cara began to volunteer at the Center every Sunday helping to feed and care for the patients. Seeing just how many people, from all sorts of backgrounds, could be trained onsite and perform the hands-on work simply blew her away. The way medicine and science were rolled up into one effort was inspirational.
During her journey through schooling – and I mean a lot of schooling – Cara saw the problems our ocean and marine animals were facing. She always hoped she’d be able to combine medicine, research and teaching, and make it a central part of her life.
As a veterinarian and scientist, Cara is in the perfect position to use individual diagnoses to better protect the ocean. She knows that understanding the challenges marine mammals are facing lends a hand to pinpointing the origin of the issues within the environment, thus protecting not only marine mammals but the ocean’s ecosystem as a whole.
Cara did make her way back to the Center as a staff member. She knows from experience that veterinary school is primarily focused on individual animals, and she takes pride in that our teaching hospital gives visitors a look at the bigger picture of ocean health and conservation. So Cara encourages these students and professionals cater to their experience at the Center to fit their interests.
EDUCATION AND ALUMNI
For example, María Soledad “Sole” Sarzosa Moreta, our current International Veterinary Fellow is from Ecuador, where she investigates the health of Galápagos sea lions. At the Center Sole will strengthen her skills in medicine, animal handling, research, and more, so she can return to the Galápagos Islands with the tools she needs to develop protective protocols for this endangered species.
Several of our program alumni have used what they’ve learned at the Center as a platform for their own careers. They’ve have gone on to manage large marine mammal response networks, conduct research in Antarctica, and coordinate marine mammal disentanglement projects. Alumni from our International Veterinary Fellowship Program often return to their home countries equipped with the knowledge and support to build entire rescue and rehabilitation programs from the ground up.
When asked what a typical day is like for her, Cara just tips her head back and laughs. There is no “typical”, but that’s what she loves about it. She takes pride in the stories she’s helped shape as alumni share their knowledge and skills with the world, creating a ripple effect of change.
INSPIRING & EMPOWERING THE PUBLIC
Not only are veterinary students and professionals coming to hone their skills at the Center, but thousands of children and adults find themselves immersed in our public programming onsite. From Youth Crew, our service-learning program for high school students, to Camp Sea Quest, our summer day camp for kids, to Marine Science Sundays, our free educational talks on ever-changing topics, to Guided Tours – there are so many ways for people of all ages and backgrounds to get involved and learn something new.
Laura Gill coordinates the Center’s public programming and leads tours. Having been a marine science educator for quite some time, she began her journey at small pier-end aquariums and learned about the Center through a professional development opportunity. Much like Erin and Cara, Laura feels the work being done at the Center is so unique in the way all of the different aspects of science, research and education are explored every day.
Laura can pinpoint a particular experience that fated her to ocean education. At just 13 years old, her parents sent her on a volunteer trip to Costa Rica where she worked with local marine biologists to relocate vulnerable sea turtle eggs to safer locations. As the only Spanish speaker among the group of volunteers, Laura was tasked with translating the science to her fellow sea turtle lovers. Guiding the two groups toward their shared vision of saving those sea turtles solidified Laura’s passion for education.
She fervently inspires our future ocean stewards, adults and children alike, to take action and make changes to their daily habits for the betterment of our shared ocean. The breadth of our programs are just starting to reach an international audience. Recently, a classroom in Portugal tuned into one of our virtual learning programs in which a marine science educator led to them through the wonders of the ocean.
Children today are the leaders of tomorrow and Laura works hard every day so that our visitors see the value in our ocean for not only what it provides us, but also for what we can learn about its health and human health. And it’s not only children Laura aims to inspire. Adults have approached her after a tour to say that if they could go back in time, they would have pursued careers in ocean conservation.
She identifies one of her proudest moments to be when she was talking with a visitor, and found the same visitor, just days later, at a training to become a volunteer. Some people come to the Center not knowing what they’re getting themselves into, but she strives to empower them, lives for those “ah-ha” moments and hopes they feel like they can truly make a difference.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE
I come to the Center every day in awe of the breadth of our work. But when I ask myself why I love to share our stories, it always comes back to the people behind the work. Erin, Cara, and Laura, among hundreds of others, work tirelessly toward global ocean conservation.
Not one day has passed when I haven’t felt inspired by the incredible stories of the people of the Center. Everyone involved is leading the front in ocean conservation. From our 1,300 (and counting) volunteers ensuring this organization’s gears are well-oiled, to the members of the public who call our 24/7 rescue hotline, to staff such as Erin, Cara, and Laura – all are equally important to the Center’s mission and serve as an inspiration. Each has a story to tell, and each is doing their part in conserving the ocean and all of its inhabitants through rescue and rehabilitation, scientific research, and education.
Do you know of an inspirational charity or non-profit organization? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below! And if you’d like a charity to be considered for this series please submit their story via our Contribute Page.
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