Ocean Animal Emergency
Wildlife veterinarians struggle to save injured seals and sea lions on the California coast. Airing November 25, 2008 at 9 pm on PBS Aired November 25, 2008 on PBS
(Program not available for streaming.) NOVA takes you inside a very special ER to witness the efforts of wildlife veterinarians as they fight to save their animal patients as well as to uncover the cause of a mysterious neurological illness plaguing marine mammals like California sea lions and harbor seal pups. Part emergency room, part rehab facility, and part research lab, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California means the difference between life and death for sick and injured ocean animals. Not only are the animal patients endearing, they are also sending us an urgent message about the health of our oceans.
Ocean Animal Emergency
PBS Airdate: November 25, 2008
NARRATOR: Just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, there is a hospital unlike any other.
FELICIA NUTTER (Staff Veterinarian): This is definitely cutting edge.
NARRATOR: While its patients are bright, appealing and furry, they are also a critical barometer of the decline of our oceans.
This adult male sea lion's neck is entangled in some human garbage. He cannot eat and is quickly losing weight, so a team from the Marine Mammal Center needs to capture him and get him back to the hospital.
SHELBI STOUDT (Volunteer): If he's in your net, we want to try to get him into the bigger net. Our goal is to sneak up on him and surprise him, because no matter how sick or injured the animal is, all it has to do is roll over into the water and we can't get him.
NARRATOR: It's not all that easy. For this sea lion, the story has a happy ending. A month later he is sighted sunning himself on a San Francisco pier, and the entanglement had fallen off. But for hundreds of animals along the California coast, this hospital makes the difference between life and death.
Theirs is an all-out effort to save these animals from our increasingly troubled oceans. High-end veterinary science and a passion for marine mammals, right now on NOVA: Ocean Animal Emergency.
NARRATOR: Pier 39: San Francisco's famous tourist attraction and home to hundreds of playful California sea lions.
BOY (Tourist): Look! Coming in!
NARRATOR: But while they captivate the tourists here, not far away, others are in danger. And each spring, like clockwork, many start hitting the beaches in distress. The response that is launched is one of the most compelling wild animal rescue operations in America.
SHELBI STOUDT: Marine Mammal Center, this is Shelbi.
MARINE MAMMAL CENTER DISPATCHER 1: About how big is the animal?
MARINE MAMMAL CENTER DISPATCHER 2: Did you see any injuries on the animal?
SHELBI STOUDT: And what beach are you on?
NARRATOR: This is the Marine Mammal Center, based in Sausalito, California. It dispatches rescue teams along the Northern California coast to save sick and dying animals.
MARINE MAMMAL CENTER DISPATCHER 3: We'll go ahead and send a crew over to check him out.
We're going to check out an elephant seal. We got the call about five minutes ago.
NARRATOR: And while the beaches are beautiful, the condition of the animals on them can be heartbreaking.
VOLUNTEER: It's over there.
NARRATOR: This call is from Pebble Beach, near Monterey, for an elephant seal that is weak and near death.
MARINE MAMMAL CENTER DISPATCHER 3: There are a lot of flies on his face. He's underweight. You can see his backbone. We should pick him up.
JURGE (Marine Mammal Center Volunteer): Board first, behind the animal, then we will get in with the carrier.
NARRATOR: Wood boards are used to corral the pups and protect the rescuers.
JURGE: Watch his flippers, his head.
NARRATOR: Even a weak wild animal can still put up quite a fight.
JURGE: Nice and easy rescue.
NARRATOR: Every day brings new animals, during the busy spring season. Some are easily reached on the beaches, but the rescue teams must head out to where the injured animals are. Some are caught in marinas.
SHELBI STOUDT: Stop.
NARRATOR: Others are on the dangerous rock jetties of Monterey Bay.
SHAWN (Marine Mammal Center Volunteer): See that real big guy who's barking and moving over there?
NARRATOR: These rescues require specially trained dive teams. The sick animals are then transported to an ocean-side hospital in Sausalito. This hospital has an E.R., an I.C.U., and even treats infants. And instead of beds, each patient has a pool. The cafeteria specializes in raw fish.
During the busy season, three different species of marine animals show up at the emergency room: There are northern elephant seals, like our pup from Pebble Beach. They can grow to 13 feet and weigh two tons. The males have a characteristic elephant-like snout. California sea lions—like the ones on the jetties in Monterey or Pier 39—they are far more mobile and playful than elephant seals and can use their flippers to walk on. Some research shows them to be closely related to bears and dogs. California sea lions are gregarious and easily trained. And then there are the incredibly cute, but incredibly vulnerable harbor seal pups. These seals are the most skittish of all and like to keep their distance from humans. The pups come in weighing just a few pounds but should grow to five or six feet. Elephant seals, sea lions and harbor seals, all are treated here.
Our elephant seal pup from Pebble beach gets checked in. She is weighed and painted with an identifying head marker. The tradition at the Marine Mammal Center is that the person who finds the animal names it. Her given name is Ouzel, a type of water bird.
FRANCES GULLAND (Veterinarian Director): Ouzel is going to go from just having a little red head to actually having a number.
NARRATOR: Once checked in, every animal gets a full veterinary workup.
FRANCES GULLAND: First thing we'll do is the length.
NARRATOR: Frances Gulland is the chief veterinarian.
FRANCES GULLAND: So, nose to tail, 128. She is very underweight, and then she has a patch of oil on her head, a little dehydrated, but so far she looks like a malnourished pup.
NARRATOR: Gulland and her team are on the front lines of marine animal medicine and believe they are witnessing devastating changes in the ecology of our oceans.
FRANCES GULLAND: At lot of change is happening. If you stop to think about how much change there has been in recent years, it's pretty dramatic.
NARRATOR: When these animals show up at the E.R., many are at serious risk. Only about 50 percent will survive. The next few weeks will be crucial for Ouzel.
And like any emergency room, you never know what will happen next.
This young Harbor Seal pup came into the Center underweight and frail with a strange cluster of growths on its mouth. Frances and her colleague, Dr. Felicia Nutter, want to see if they can remove the tumors and give this animal a fighting chance back in the wild.
FELICIA NUTTER: Your first response when you see him is, "Oh my, what's that?" Because he looks pretty bad. But then as you work with him and watch him you realize he's a normal harbor seal pup in all other ways.
What do you think? I think, for me, it's a little bit beyond me, but for a soft tissue surgeon it might be like, "ah, pheph."
We don't know if this is a problem that was just a hiccup in embryological development. It might be something that was influenced by contaminants in the marine environment. It might be something that was influenced by the oil spill in November. We really don't know what caused it.
NARRATOR: X-rays are ordered and this pup, barely a week old, is given anesthesia.
Much of the veterinary medicine practiced here was developed here. The Marine Mammal Center is the foremost research hospital for these animals anywhere in the world. Francis Gulland has pioneered many of these treatments.
Gulland and team recently discovered a link between high cancer rates in California sea lions and concentrations of toxic chemicals, like P.C.B.s, in their blubber.
Are these tumors a related case?
FELICIA NUTTER: Let's check that x-ray and see if there's anything.
NARRATOR: A day in the life of this ocean E.R. is much like that at any busy city hospital: Part high-end science...
FRANCES GULLAND: ...want to try, maybe, doing a lateral head.
NARRATOR: ...part three-ring circus.
SHELBI STOUDT: Marine Mammal Center, this is Shelbi.
NARRATOR: While the doctors treat the sick, Shelbi Stoudt mans the phones.
SHELBI STOUDT: Are you familiar with the differences between seals and sea lions?
That's okay. What color is the fur on the animal?
NARRATOR: A seal is spotted on the beach just below the Center. Instead of waiting for the crew on duty, Shelbi jumps into action. At four-feet-seven, she's smaller than many of the animals she needs to rescue, but she says her size is an advantage.
SHELBI STOUDT: The benefit that I have is, in the marine mammal world, size is what matters. So these animals don't expect something of my stature to be able to outwit them.
I don't move slow if you haven't figured that out about me.
FILM CREW MEMBER: No, we did.
NARRATOR: As suspected, it's another malnourished elephant seal pup. The green mark on her head indicates that she may have been in trouble before, and there is a sore on her neck they will have to investigate.
FELICIA NUTTER: Northern elephant seals, they're born and then nursed for about a month. And then the moms wean them—it's called a hard weaning—and the moms go back to sea.
NARRATOR: After the mom leaves, pups like this must survive off their own blubber, until they figure out how to eat on their own. The ones that need to be rescued just haven't made it.
SHELBI STOUDT: It takes a lot of energy for them to maneuver.
NARRATOR: Given that this is Mother Nature's way for the elephant seals, is it appropriate to intervene?
FELICIA NUTTER: We provide a humane response to animals that are in distress. So before the Marine Mammal Center was established, in 1975, there was no recourse for animals on our beaches. They were left to live or die as they might.
SHELBI STOUDT: Okay, now, we're going to tilt.
FELICIA NUTTER: And the other part of the equation is the impact that humans have had on the natural environment. The wetlands that were there a hundred years ago are really greatly diminished, and so the animals are being forced into smaller and smaller areas and into closer contact with people.
NARRATOR: Rescuing and caring for these animals costs millions of dollars a year, all paid by charitable contributions.
Since Shelbi rescued this one, she gets to name it.
SHELBI STOUDT: Question: could we name it "Your Sister?"
DEB WICKHAM (Marine Mammal Center Volunteer): If Your Mom is okay with that.
SHELBI STOUDT: Okay, Your Sister it is.
NARRATOR: Naming animals here is kind of a game. Each year themes develop. One year it was cocktails—Martini, Mimosa and Mojito have come and gone. This year it's all about family.
SHELBI STOUDT: Your Sister goes along with another seal name that we have on site called Your Mom. It's a lot of fun for us to say, "Your Mom is getting fat," "Your Mom is throwing up." So we did Your Sister.
FELICIA NUTTER: Is that Your Sister?
SHELBI STOUDT: Yes.
FELICIA NUTTER: She doesn't look a thing like you.
NARRATOR: Once an animal has been stabilized and seen by the vets, they are fed. And what do you feed a baby seal? A fish milkshake, of course, made from a combination of ground up herring and animal baby formula.
And like with any baby, a lot revolves around feedings. Plus, seals need to be fat to survive in the ocean.
Our Pebble Beach pup, Ouzel, is getting her much needed meal through what appears to be a rather intense feeding process called tubing.
MARIE DESTEFANIS (Marine Mammal Center Volunteer): The tube is inserted down into the stomach. There is no pain associated with it at all. I think mostly it's just stressful, so we try and do it as quickly as possible. And then, when we know we are in, we just gently put the fish milkshake into the stomach.
STACY BERYACK (Marine Mammal Center Volunteer): The alternative is to have them die of malnutrition, yeah, which is a horrible thing to watch.
NARRATOR: The bulk of the work at the Marine Mammal Center is provided by a remarkable group of volunteers, all trained in basic marine animal care.
Most days Stacy Bezyack is a business consultant, but for the last seven years, she has given one day a week to wrangling these animals.
STACY BERYACK: It's a big part of my life. A lot of people give up one of their two free days off to come here and deal with these guys and put up with crap from them, too.
NARRATOR: The goal with all these animals is to get them into good enough shape to go back into the sea, but to be released they must be a healthy weight and eating fish on their own. Surprisingly, most of these animals have no instinct to eat fish and must learn, just like a baby human.
RAYA SMITH (Marine Mammal Center Volunteer): When the animal turns from you, that's "no interest."
NARRATOR: Raya Smith was particularly well trained for this job. She worked for years as an elementary school special ed teacher.
RAYA SMITH: It is special ed because you need to be patient with them. You need to allow them to grow as they grow. Some move faster than others. They are very much an individual. So I believe in the slow, steady kindness approach.
NARRATOR: Our pup, Ouzel, hasn't quite gotten it, which puts him at serious risk.
JOYCE FOX (Marine Mammal Center Volunteer): He's not even moving his whiskers forward, which indicates he's not interested.
NARRATOR: This California sea lion was entangled in some floating ocean garbage, which cut deeply into his head. Entanglements like these are common for ocean animals, in part because they're so smart and curious. But entanglements are a particularly gruesome example of how pollution can be deadly in the ocean.
This sea lion is lucky; the rescue team cut off the entanglement. The vets now think he's ready to be released. He was captured on April 15, tax day, and because he put up such a nasty fight, he was named Taxman.
Today Taxman is going home, if the volunteers can get him.
Since sea lions, unlike seals, can use their flippers to walk, they are much faster and harder to wrangle. Eventually, Taxman plays right into their hands.
LEE JACKREL (Marine Mammal Center Volunteer): Sometimes they're surprisingly cooperative. It's rare, but always makes us look good when it happens.
NARRATOR: Healthy animals are released as soon as possible, so they don't become too used to humans.
Taxman is shipped out to an isolated beach in Point Reyes National Seashore, where the chances are good he'll meet up with another group of sea lions.
KAT (Marine Mammal Center Volunteer): Going to put them back on? For him? He's coming right out.
NARRATOR: Only about half of the hospital's patients make it to a successful release. Each one that does is a small victory for the Center's volunteers.
The entanglement scar is a clear indicator that Taxman got too close to human activity in the past, so maybe here, at such a remote place, he'll do better.
NARRATOR: Back at the hospital, the animals keep coming in. Some are dropped off at the door, literally.
This baby harbor seal was found abandoned in Bodega Bay by Phil and Jean Warren, who live near a seal breeding spot.
Jean is a painter and has decided that this year she will name every pup she finds after a French artist.
MARINE MAMMAL CENTER VOLUNTEER 1: What did you name him?
JEAN WARREN: His name is Marcel Duchamp, a real feisty artist.
MARINE MAMMAL CENTER VOLUNTEER 1: Oh, we're back in the artists.
JEAN WARREN: Yes. Today was Duchamp. We've had Magritte, Degas. Who else?
PHIL WARREN: Brought two in last week and both of them were artists.
JEAN WARREN: Matisse and Cezanne were last week.
NARRATOR: This is Duchamp.
These little newborns were separated from their mothers before they had finished nursing, and, as such, received few of the antibodies in her milk. So they are highly susceptible to infections.
The harbor seals are kept in a special part of the Marine Mammal Center, a kind of pediatric intensive care unit. These little newborns are the most delicate animals onsite. Duchamp will be kept in the I.C.U., until he has stabilized and is less vulnerable.
Back in the operating room, the x-rays of the young harbor seal with the tumor cluster are not encouraging.
FELICIA NUTTER: This is the area of concern.
NARRATOR: It looks like the tumor goes deep inside his jaw.
FRANCES GULLAND: It feels like there's something actually within the mandible on the left side. Yes, I'm convinced that his left mandible is involved.
NARRATOR: A deformity like this cannot be fixed for a wild animal and would make him too vulnerable to predators.
FRANCES GULLAND: So it looks like it's basically not operable, and it's a congenital defect. So at this point, we feel the best thing for him is to euthanize him rather than to wake him up.
FELICIA NUTTER: In cases where we think the impairments are really significant and are going to impair their abilities to function normally and to have a good fighting chance at living as normal a life as possible, then we do what we consider the humane thing and euthanize those animals.
FRANCES GULLAND: You can't half fix it. Or you can't keep it on drugs, you know, every three hours give it a little something. It either has to be better and able to fend for itself or, or not. There's no gray area where you can just keep it as your pet.
FELICIA NUTTER: Euthanasia means "a good death." It's not something I ever take lightly. I don't know anybody that does take that lightly. It is a life or death decision.
FRANCES GULLAND: It's a very peaceful way to go.
NARRATOR: Every animal that dies here is given a complete post mortem exam. Tissue samples are taken as part of an ongoing analysis of the health of these animal populations and the declining conditions of our oceans.
FRANCES GULLAND: On more of an ecological perspective, they are the top of the food chain in the ocean. They are a really good indicator of some of the ecosystem changes that we're seeing today.
NARRATOR: But finding out what factors have changed in our oceans cannot happen only in a hospital with sick animals. Understanding their normal healthy behavior is essential.
And there is no better way to do that than with Dan Costa at the Aíño Nuevo State Reserve, above Santa Cruz, California.
These are northern elephant seals. They are the full-grown version of our pups, Ouzel and Your Sister. Females weigh up to a ton, the males can be more than two.
Each spring, Costa, a biologist from the University of California, Santa Cruz, outfits of few of these massive seals with satellite tags.
DANIEL COSTA (University of California, Santa Cruz, Long Marine Laboratory): We're exploring how these animals make a living, where they find their food, how they get it and how hard they have to work to get it.
There isn't a book that we can go and flip through to see what a sea lion or a seal does. Some of the simplest things about these animals we've only recently begun to understand.
So do you got an animal for us?
MELINDA FOWLER (Graduate Student): Yes, we have an adult female, about three animals in, up there on the ledge.
NARRATOR: Graduate student, Melinda Fowler has located a six-year-old female with a flipper tag showing that she was born here. It's an indication that she is likely to return, so the team can retrieve their satellite receiver, if they can get it on in the first place.
MELINDA FOWLER: It can be a little bit dangerous, we really have to play each situation by ear and go up there kind of quietly and see how they react and see how we can best give...try and give her the sedative.
NARRATOR: The seal is given a sedative and, in about 15 minutes, is much less concerned about what's going on.
DANIEL COSTA: So these are the tags we are going to be putting out today. Because we want to get the transmission and it only transmits when the animal is out of the water, you put it on the animal's head, so...electronic yarmulke. This is hardware-store-variety five minute epoxy. We're just gluing this tag onto the hair of the animal.
NARRATOR: The team takes advantage of the elephant seal's easygoing, drug- induced condition to get a few vital measurements...
MELINDA FOWLER: Length seal, 105.
NARRATOR: ...including her length, girth and weight. So how do you weigh a full grown elephant seal? You deploy a lot of grad students.
GRADUATE STUDENT 1: Ah, we're off.
GRADUATE STUDENT 2: Read it.
GRADUATE STUDENT 1: 346 kilos.
NARRATOR: If you look at them lying on the beach, the life of these animals seems pretty lazy, but the data recorders tell a whole different story.
DANIEL COSTA: When we got the first records back we were absolutely astounded. The elephant seals go all over the north Pacific. We have some individuals that went beyond the international dateline. That's twice the distance to Hawaii or probably two times the width the United States.
NARRATOR: This is one of the longest animal migrations anywhere in the world, made in order to find enough food. Each seal does it alone every year and usually returns to the exact same beach.
DANIEL COSTA: When you are limited to just studying them on the beach, you do get this idea that life must be easy for an elephant seal, that this is all it is. They just kind of sit around and do nothing. When you get these records back, showing the animals spending 80, 90 percent of their time at sea, non-stop working...you never see them resting on the surface. They're just nonstop diving. You kind of think, "Well, they have earned that rest on the beach."
FELICIA NUTTER: When I first saw some of the satellite tracking maps for these animals, I was saying to my friends and my husband, it's like the Serengeti of the sea. It is, but nobody sees it.
NARRATOR: It's hard to believe that a little pup like Your Sister or Ouzel, who are just learning to eat fish, should someday be able to swim halfway across the Pacific and back.
But thanks to the tubing and fish milkshakes they are, at least, getting fat. So is little Duchamp, the harbor seal.
Weight gain is a proxy for health here at the Marine Mammal Center. Not only do seals need to be fat to survive in the ocean, appetite can be a major diagnostic clue in the world of veterinary medicine.
FELICIA NUTTER: Veterinarians treat the spectrum, from the tiniest little fish to elephants. But they can't talk to us, they can't tell us verbally what symptoms they are experiencing. So we have to use our skills of observation to really look for changes in the behavior of the animals, which can be very subtle.
NARRATOR: All of the animals are observed daily, by the volunteers. Records are kept of their behavior, what they eat and how much weight they gain. There are daily rounds, just like in a human hospital, where abnormal cases are discussed.
FELICIA NUTTER: He had a rough couple of days, so...but he does look better.
NARRATOR: Deb Wickham oversees the animals' daily care and is often the first to notice a problem.
FELICIA NUTTER: Xilia. Go, Deb.
DEB WICKHAM: I have concern about Xilia. Well, she is not eating. I don't know. She just doesn't seem normal to me. I don't know what's going on.
NARRATOR: Xilia is a harbor seal pup, on the surface, like any other.
FELICIA NUTTER: We'll see what we can do. Hopefully, we can get her to eat.
NARRATOR: But something is not quite right.
FELICIA NUTTER: Everybody that works with her just sort of has an impression that she is not normal. Her behavior is not normal.
Just kind of go slowly. She's not even looking. She is at least chewing it to pieces.
It's fairly subtle. She's just too tolerant. She should be more aggressive. And she has been here for months, and we're still not able to get her to eat fish normally. And so we've ruled out some things that we thought might have been responsible for her inability to swallow fish normally, and so we are sort left a little bit puzzled, scratching our heads a little bit as to the suite of abnormalities that we are seeing. What does it all mean?
NARRATOR: So far, this season, Xilia has been getting a lot of medical attention. She was x-rayed a few weeks ago, here at the Center, to see if there was something obstructing her esophagus. But nothing was found.
Today, she is going where no harbor seal has gone before. With cooperation of a private cardiac clinic, Xilia is going to get a state of the art CAT scan.
FELICIA NUTTER: The medical office where we are going to be doing this procedure, they are very enthusiastic and interested.
NARRATOR: This is a first for the Marine Mammal Center.
FELICIA NUTTER: So we're actually doing this procedure as a collaboration and not getting charged for it. It's scientific discovery work at its best.
JAMES ADAMS (Cardiovascular Associates): It will be interesting to see. I'm not sure what a seal's heart looks like. I'm told it looks fairly similar to a human's, so we will see.
NARRATOR: A few years ago, there was a similar case to Xilia's.
FELICIA NUTTER: There was a case, several years before I started working at the Center, of a harbor seal with a similar history. And at necropsy they found that she had half a brain, she had hemi-cerebral agenesis.
When the animal was euthanized and examined, it only had half a brain. And that was a congenital defect. Behaviorally, the animal seemed pretty normal, except it never learned how to swallow fish and eat fish. And so that sort of come to mind. People are going, "Oh, remember that seal, kind of like this, that only had half a brain?"
So, the C.T. scan, we are hoping, will serve several purposes. We'll be able to get an examination of her brain and see if we see any abnormalities in her brain. It will also let us look at her esophagus. We'll be able see if there is something we've missed.
TECH 1: I think we're ready to go?
TECH 2: Ready?
FELICIA NUTTER: Yeah. That's amazing. Look at that. Look at that.
NARRATOR: As the images come through, the power of this technology becomes clear. It's like a full dissection without ever touching the patient.
FELICIA NUTTER: Do you guys ever get tired of this?
This is definitely cutting edge. It's cutting edge human medicine, and so it's definitely cutting edge wildlife veterinary medicine.
DOCTOR 1: Slice into the brain.
FELICIA NUTTER: There's her brain, filling out the cranium. So, as far as we can tell she's got a full brain.
DOCTOR 1: Yes, she has a full brain.
FELICIA NUTTER: And everything looks bilaterally symmetrical, no obvious infarcts, no...
DOCTOR 1: No obvious infarcts, no evidence of bleeding in the brain.
FELICIA NUTTER: It looks like...that everything that is there is supposed to be, and nothing is there that shouldn't be there.
DOCTOR 1: Here's her lung tissue, right here.
NARRATOR: The early analysis of the CAT scan is encouraging. There are no glaring abnormalities. But from a treatment point of view, that's frustrating, too.
FELICIA NUTTER: At this point, I don't have any more answers. I'm never satisfied by that. I always want to figure out exactly what happened. But sometimes we don't.
NARRATOR: Sometimes animals at the Center die, and the cause is never known. In Xilia's case, they'll keep observing her, hoping for clues that might save her.
Meanwhile, another animal has come in, exhibiting more acute symptoms. She's a California sea lion named Sardine.
FELICIA NUTTER: Let's see if she sees you come in. Make some noise up there by her head. Okay, so, little response, touching her. She's definitely abnormal. A normal adult sea lion should be very aggressive. She's not just slow. Slow would be that she knows you are there but is slow. She's arousable, but that's about it.
NARRATOR: This time, the doctors believe they know what is causing the symptoms. It's a problem they've been seeing every year, since 1998.
FRANCES GULLAND: In 1998, we had about 70 animals in here, there were up to 400 other animals affected on the coastline. These animals were stranding, day after day, and each one had the same signs.
NARRATOR: What Gulland saw were sea lions, mostly adults, in serious trouble. Many had already died along the beaches.
FRANCES GULLAND: Seizures is the main symptom. The animals have convulsions.
NARRATOR: A team was quickly assembled to investigate.
FRANCES GULLAND: And putting those parts together, came up with this diagnosis of, "Aha, sea lions are being poisoned."
NARRATOR: The poison Gulland found in their bodies was a substance called domoic acid that is known to come from a certain kind of toxic algae.
For Gulland and team that was bad news. There is no known cure for domoic acid poison. And there had never been any known cases in California waters. So the urgent question was, "Where was it coming from?"
DAVID CARON (University of Southern California): This is epidemiology at its best. We are looking at an emerging disease, if you will.
NARRATOR: David Caron, an oceanographer at the University of Southern California, is an expert on ocean algae called phytoplankton, the single-cell organism that can be found in every teaspoon of seawater.
DAVID CARON: So, in your typical teaspoon of water, you will find something on the order of 50 million viruses, five million bacteria, several thousand micro-algae, or phytoplankton, and probably a similar amount of protozoa.
NARRATOR: Somewhere in all these millions of organisms was the killer. Caron and his lab team filter gallons of seawater weekly to try to isolate the particular variety of phytoplankton that produces domoic acid.
DAVID CARON: Domoic acid turns out to be a very powerful neurotoxin. It gets into the neural connections, and it mimics an electrical transmitter in the nerves of any higher organism. And it continues to fire those nerves until they, literally, burn out.
NARRATOR: Once the poison was isolated, the pieces fell quickly into place. It turned out that Gulland was seeing the effects of brain damage. Domoic acid was literally burning holes in the sea lions' brains.
Ever since those first cases, domoic acid has become an annual problem at the Marine Mammal Center. In late spring, it can be particularly intense, like with Sardine.
Sardine is exhibiting all the classic signs: bobbing head, non-responsive and seizures.
FELICIA NUTTER: So we'll do the E.E.G., and I expect we're going to find seizure activity.
NARRATOR: The key test for domoic acid poisoning is an E.E.G., or electroencephalogram.
FELICIA NUTTER: An E.E.G. allows us to measure electrical activity in the brain, and we can see seizure activity. The prognosis, for animals suffering the chronic effects of domoic acid, is poor.
NARRATOR: This understanding came, in part, from radio tags that were put on sea lions that had domoic acid poisoning but were returned to the wild.
FELICIA NUTTER: Our research has shown that their quality of life and behavior is abnormal, and usually, within a few months, they are probably going to die.
NARRATOR: So what causes these outbreaks of domoic acid poisoning? David Caron's work shows that human sewage and the runoff of fertilizers from farms increases phytoplankton in the ocean. This satellite map shows that connection.
DAVID CARON: You can see the coastline. So, Los Angeles is right up in here. And so what you're seeing here, this little colored, sort of grayish areas out here, are the flow from those rivers right after a storm.
NARRATOR: Caron has compared the location of this runoff with the concentration of phytoplankton in the water.
DAVID CARON: And you can see, kind of, coinciding with some of this plume of material coming out of the rivers, you can see this large amount of phytoplankton production that's taking place.
NARRATOR: What factors in this runoff are causing an increase in domoic acid is the question Caron is now trying to answer. And with each year, that question become more urgent.
DAVID CARON: In 2006, 2007 and now, in 2008, it has come back with a vengeance, all three years. And, in fact, the concentrations, that we have seen in the water, of the toxin domoic acid, have almost doubled from year to year, in those three years. It's dramatically affecting the animals that are present.
NARRATOR: Frighteningly, domoic acid can affect humans, too, because it's concentrated in filter-feeding fish, like sardines and mussels, which both people and sea lions like to eat.
The California Department of Health works with Caron and the Marine Mammal Center to monitor for domoic acid outbreaks.
FRANCES GULLAND: If humans ate domoic acid, they, too, would have similar symptoms. So what we learn from sea lions is relevant to the study of how domoic acid could impact human health, as well.
DAVID CARON: Right now, we still treat the oceans as this wild environment that can absorb anything we throw in it and anything we throw at it. I'm telling you, that's no longer true.
NARRATOR: And sea lions like Sardine are suffering the consequences. The damage clearly shows up on her E.E.G.
FELICIA NUTTER: So we've had less than a minute of recording, and I've already seen one seizure spike. Once we see that, we know that she is suffering from the chronic affects of domoic acid. Because of the seizure activity, the best option we can provide is humane euthanasia.
NARRATOR: As the spring progresses, the patients at the Marine Mammal Center begin to change over. The elephant seal pups that came in early are getting ready to leave. Our pup, Ouzel, has finally gotten the knack of fishing. Your Sister has gotten good and fat.
Increasingly, with each day, the new patients are sea lions, some with domoic acid seizures, some entangled in human garbage.
FELICIA NUTTER: He has a fishhook in his eyelid.
NARRATOR: Others are young pups who've not quite made it on their own.
Every year, close to 1,000 animals are treated here. Fortunately, in Northern California, sea lions, elephant seals and harbor seal populations are still relatively healthy and growing.
But that is not the case everywhere—like in the Hawaiian Islands. On the North Shore of Oahu, Jennifer Maldonado is setting up a protective barrier.
JENNIFER MALDONADO (Volunteer): I'll set up a sign. Well, we've tried to keep the location a secret. Oh, sorry I'm taking you a difficult path.
NARRATOR: Jennifer is part of an all-out effort to protect a very special mom and pup.
JENNIFER MALDONADO: They're still nursing.
NARRATOR: A few weeks ago, this Hawaiian monk seal hauled out on this beach to give birth to the little pup on the left.
Hawaiian monk seals are one of the most endangered animals in the world. Their Caribbean cousin was declared extinct earlier this year.
JENNIFER MALDONADO: We need to head this way, because we are really close to them.
NARRATOR: It is estimated that there are just under 1,200 Hawaiian monk seals left on Earth. With so few, each one becomes critical to the survival of the species.
JENNIFER MALDONADO: This is necessary, because if someone happens to come down and startles them, the mom can feel threatened and want to leave and not come back to the pup. It's just so special. The pup's rolling around right now, I can see.
NARRATOR: Recently, another Hawaiian monk seal pup was found, abandoned by its mother, on the island of Kauai. The pup was rescued, flown to Honolulu, and placed under quarantine in this National Marine Fisheries building.
Frances Gulland has flown in to help try and help save it.
FRANCES GULLAND: For me, it's very important to be here now and work with this animal. Every monk seal is really important to the survival of the species. The population is actually declining, at about 4 percent per year, so we have to do, really, everything we can, now.
NARRATOR: There has never been a newborn Hawaiian monk seal, this young, successfully rescued. Gulland hopes this time it will be different.
No one here is willing to take any chances, not even with our cameras.
Can we come in?
FRANCES GULLAND: I'm afraid not.
NARRATOR: Instead, we asked one of the staff there to film the midday feeding for us.
FRANCES GULLAND: We really want to minimize the pup's exposure to humans, for a variety of reasons. The first is quarantine. If you had a cold or if you had an eye infection, or something, he could be affected by that. The second reason is also his behavioral development. He has to go back to the wild. He has to behave like a wild monk seal. So we really want to minimize his exposure to people.
The Marine Mammal Center has learned a lot, by caring for thousands of harbor seal pups and elephant seal pups, over time. Some of those techniques are directly applicable, such as how to tube feed and how to wean animals from tubes onto fish. Some of them are a little different.
Monk seals like to forage on the bottom, and they'll turn rocks over to get their fish, so there are differences in the foraging behavior of these animals, which will result in differences in the way we get them to eat fish for the first time.
NARRATOR: After the midday tubing, we get another firsthand report.
FILM CREW MEMBER: How's he doing?
FRANCES GULLAND: He's doing great. He's putting on weight now. So, this is his body weight. So, you can see, over the past week, he is really beginning to gain weight. In fact, this week he put on two kilos. He's got a ways to go. He's got to grow and get fat.
By saving the monk seal, we can also save the habitat that they live in. So, for the people of Hawaii, this is really an animal that is important to the culture and to the environment here.
FELICIA NUTTER: When populations get to a certain level, there is sort of a tipping point you get to, where every individual matters. For every species that tipping point is a little bit different. One of the reasons we talk about the value of rehabilitation for common species is that we can learn how to do this with common species, so that, if we need to do it with threatened or endangered species, we can; we are not figuring it out for the first time, with animals that are in a really perilous situation.
Her clinical behavior is great. She is eating very well and not showing any clinical abnormalities.
FRANCES GULLAND: Well, then, she'll go, and there will be no more Your Sister jokes.
NARRATOR: Saving these animals depends upon understanding each species' unique biology and developing effective treatments. It is the daily routine that makes all the difference.
On the wall of Shelbi's office, there are class photos of the harbor seal pups that made to graduation day. This year's class would be the envy of any great art museum, it includes Matisse, Cezanne and Duchamp.
Our pup, Ouzel, the elephant seal, was released one day, unexpectedly, when the power went out, and the filters for the pools broke down. Gulland ordered all of the animals that were close to their release weight to go immediately. Ouzel and ten others were released together.
Your Sister was also released, with five other healthy elephant seals, at Point Reyes National Seashore. The staff is fond of saying, "Your Sister is, once again, wild."
Taxman, whose head was scarred by ocean trash, was spotted at the famous San Francisco tourist attraction, Pier 39. Obviously, he's still interested in hanging out near humans.
Xilia, the harbor seal with the mysterious medical problems, made a surprising turnaround and started eating live fish. So she was released with a data recorder. Sadly, it looks like Xilia got caught up in a fishing net and was dragged out to sea.
Duchamp is going home today, in what is the annual Full Moon Release Party. It's a night that many volunteers for the Marine Mammal Center celebrate.
MARINE MAMMAL CENTER VOLUNTEER 2: Are you guys ready? Okay, this is Duchamp.
NARRATOR: There is a new research project under way this summer, and Duchamp and the others have been fitted with tiny satellite tags. Their whereabouts can now be tracked via the internet.
Tonight, six harbor seals are successfully released, including the two famous French artists Duchamp and Matisse. Surely they will contribute to the beauty of the California coast.
On NOVA's Ocean Animal Emergency Web site, watch any part of this program, go behind the scenes and more. Find it on PBS.org.
Ocean Animal Emergency
PBS Airdate: November 25, 2008
- Written and Produced by
- Doug Hamilton
- Associate Producer
- Solana Pyne
- Field Producer
- Dan Krauss
- Edited by
- Geoff Gruetzmacher
- Narrated by
- John Benjamin Hickey
- Director of Photography
- Dan Krauss
- Sound Recordists
- Jim Choi
- Additional Camera
- Paul Atkins
Alex da Silva
- Tay Chee Wei
- Music Mix
- Chris Dawson
- Assistant Editor
- Robert Austin
- Online Editor and Colorist
- Michael H. Amundson
- Audio Mix
- John Jenkins
- Production Assistants
- Singeli Agnew
- Archival Material
- Florian Graner/Footage Search
Howard Hall Productions/Footage Search
Harrison Stubbs/Footage Search
- Special Thanks
- Darin Padula, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Satellite imagery: Scripps Institution of Oceanography for the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System
Filming of elephant seal research was carried out under authority of NMFS Permit No. 87-1743
- NOVA Series Graphics
- yU + co.
- NOVA Theme Music
- Walter Werzowa
- Additional NOVA Theme Music
- Ray Loring
- Closed Captioning
- The Caption Center
- Carole McFall
- Senior Researcher
- Gaia Remerowski
- Production Coordinator
- Linda Callahan
- Sarah Erlandson
- Talent Relations
- Scott Kardel, Esq.
- Legal Counsel
- Susan Rosen
- Post Production Assistant
- Darcy Forlenza
- Associate Producer, Post Production
- Patrick Carey
- Post Production Supervisor
- Regina O'Toole
- Post Production Editors
- Rebecca Nieto
- Post Production Manager
- Nathan Gunner
- Compliance Manager
- Linzy Emery
- Development Producer
- Pamela Rosenstein
- Supervising Producer
- Stephen Sweigart
- Business Manager
- Joseph P. Tracy
- Senior Producer and Project Director
- Lisa Mirowitz
- Coordinating Producer
- Laurie Cahalane
- Senior Science Editor
- Evan Hadingham
- Senior Series Producer
- Melanie Wallace
- Managing Director
- Alan Ritsko
- Senior Executive Producer
- Paula S. Apsell
Â© 2008 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved
A NOVA PRODUCTION PRODUCED BY: Hamilton Land & Cattle, Inc.
Ocean Animal Emergency homepage
- Image Composite (seal, volunteer)
- Courtesy Doug Hamilton
- (Watch Online: measuring a seal)
- Courtesy Doug Hamilton
- James Adams
- Physician, Cardiovascular Associates
- David Caron
- Oceanographer, University of Southern California dornsife.usc.edu/cf/faculty-and-staff/faculty.cfm?pid=1003153
- Daniel Costa
- University of California, Santa Cruz Long Marine Laboratory bio.research.ucsc.edu/people/costa/people/costa.html
- Frances Gulland
- Veterinarian Director, Marine Mammal Center
- Felicia Nutter
- Staff Veterinarian, Marine Mammal Center www.marinemammalcenter.org/
The Marine Mammal Center
Check out the website of the Marine Mammal Center, the nonprofit veterinary facility featured in the documentary.
Sea Mammal Research Unit
Learn how to identify different types of seals and see how human activities impact marine mammal migration at the University of St. Andrews School of Biology website.
Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program
Stranded marine mammals have a friend in this program. Even when the animals can't be treated, the agency uses data gathered from stranding deaths to monitor the health of marine mammal populations.
NPR Podcast: Researchers Use Elephant Seals to Monitor Oceans
Learn how researchers are using tracking data from the northern elephant seal migration to monitor the condition of our warming oceans in this podcast from "All Things Considered."
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most endangered animals in the world. Find more information about this species and the other endangered and threatened marine mammals at the website of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
National Audubon Society Guide to Marine Mammals of the World
by Brent S. Stewart, Phillip J. Clapham, and James A. Powell. Knopf, 2002.
Marine Mammal Research: Conservation Beyond Crisis
by Timothy J. Ragen. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Seals and Sea Lions
by Bobbie Kalman and John Crossingham. Crabtree Children's Books, 2005.
CRC Handbook of Marine Mammal Medicine
by Leslie A. Dierauf. CRC Press, 2001.
"NOAA Confirms Caribbean Monk Seal Extinct"
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, June 6, 2008.
"Satellite Tracks Elephant Seal's Polar Journey"
by Roger Highfield. Telegraph, July 8, 2007.
"Sea Lions Hit by High Levels of Acid Poison in California"
by Regan Morris. The New York Times, June 6, 2007.
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