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The Producer's Story

Rescuing Seals and Sea Lions

  • By Doug Hamilton
  • Posted 11.25.08
  • NOVA

In the middle of editing "Ocean Animal Emergency," I flew to Greenland to shoot part of another upcoming NOVA program. After months spent filming the spectacular rescue efforts of seals and sea lions at The Marine Mammal Center in California, I was taken aback to be in a country where sealskin pelts decorated my hotel bed and upholstered the benches in the airport lounge.

For me, it put into perspective the challenge of protecting wild animals and defending the environment. And it reminded me that something as seemingly basic as deciding if an animal merits protection can vary dramatically depending on where you live. While environmental issues are clearly global, much of the work must happen at a local level; it's what Tip O'Neill, the legendary Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said about the political process: "All politics is local." The environment is even more so... literally.

A juvenile northern elephant seal pup at Año Nuevo State Natural Reserve just north of Santa Cruz, California Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Doug Hamilton

Location, location

In Marin County, just north of San Francisco, they spend millions of dollars a year saving individual animals, but to a Greenlander seals are common and have historically been a source of food. So for them eating seal meat and using sealskins is not very different from what we in the United States accept as normal with cattle and pigs. These different perspectives obviously affect how marine animals are treated.

Now, I'm not a vegetarian, or an animal rights person in any organized sense, but I still can't see how you can spend much time around a chubby elephant seal pup, with black eyes the size of billiard balls, and want to turn its fur into a picture frame. (Seriously, in the hotel gift shop in Greenland they were selling picture frames made out of seal fur that was dyed lipstick red.) I know it's a rather lame protest on my part, but I found myself hiding the sealskin pelts under the bed before going to sleep.

Which animals engage people's passions depends a lot on where you live.

In the U.S. our perspective on these animals has changed significantly in a century. Just over a hundred years ago, we hunted northern elephant seals for their oil-rich blubber. One bull male could yield 25 gallons. So extensive was the hunt that these animals were believed to be extinct. Then in 1892 a team collecting for the Smithsonian Institution discovered a small colony of eight on an island off Baja, Mexico. In what was clearly a wrong-headed effort to preserve these rare animals, the team shot seven of them for scientific research. The eighth was spared only because the weather got bad.

Shortly after this unfortunate incident, the Mexican government banned the hunting of these animals. The American government followed suit. Those two government acts saved the northern elephant seal, and today the population is estimated to be around 150,000.

Amazingly, recent DNA studies of the existing population estimate that at its nadir there were probably less than 100 animals left in the world. All of today's population has come from those few seals. As a result, there is almost no genetic diversity in the expanded population; it's as if they are all brothers and sisters. Nearly a century later, the legacy of our seal-hunting past can still be seen in today's lack of elephant-seal gene diversity.

Before you can put a tag on an elephant seal, you have to dart it with a sedative—not an easy process. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Doug Hamilton

A Crashing Effect

Most of the threats to ocean animals today are very different than a century ago, but as humans increasingly affect the global environment, new dangers mount even more quickly. In the last few years, several important international studies have documented how our oceans are in crisis. Pollution, overfishing, and global warming are all dramatically changing them. A few statistics that I came across in my research shocked me: Ninety percent of the ocean's big fish, like tuna, have disappeared; 41 percent of the world's oceans have been seriously degraded by human impact, and last year in the U.S., 20,000 beaches were temporarily closed or put under advisories because of pollution.

None of this was, of course, news to Frances Gulland, Director of Veterinary Science at the Marine Mammal Center. In our interview, I could almost feel her impatience with having to convince yet another person of facts that are painfully obvious in her work every day:

"I'm concerned. I mean it's bad. If you look back to records from 200 years ago, and read a lot of the new literature out on how marine life has changed, there are just dramatic differences in the number of whales and the number of types of corals and the number of salmon that used to be out there. This year, for example, there is no recreational salmon fishery off California, and, you know, 200 years ago you could walk across the bay on salmon at certain times of the year. So there are huge changes that have happened. It's pretty dramatic."

It's too easy to dismiss the extraordinary lives of all these animals and the lessons we can learn from them.

Gulland's veterinarian colleague, Felicia Nutter, has seen what happens when animal populations crash and are threatened with extinction. Before coming to the Marine Mammal Center, she worked for five years with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. These animals are clearly A-list stars in the international wildlife protection movement, but as Felicia points out, which animals engage people's passions depends a lot on where you live:

"I think we classify animals like lions in the Serengeti or mountain gorillas in Rwanda as exotic and really fascinating and interesting wild animals because we don't spend time with them. My husband spent a semester at the University of Tanzania studying zoology, and he was in a classroom full of Tanzanians, and they were studying the common African species, which to my husband or me or anybody else who has no experience with them are really fascinating, elephants and lions and Cape buffalo. And all those students were like 'Ah, you know, whatever.' When they got to the bears, you know, there aren't any bears in Africa, and so they would turn to my husband and say, 'Yes, lions are great, whatever, but tell us, are there really such things as bears? Have you seen these animals?' So, I think we are fascinated by what is not in our experience."

Dan Costa (right in enlarged image), a biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, works with his team to take measurements of a sedated northern elephant seal. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Doug Hamilton

Paying attention

Frances' experience treating local populations of marine mammals, and Felicia's ability to articulate why we care about some animals more than others, helped shape my awareness that a big reason our environment is in so much trouble is that we don't pay enough attention to the nature that is right around us.

The juxtaposition of filming the rescue of seals in California one week and sitting on a sealskin-covered bench in Greenland the next helped me make that connection. But it struck me again while I was on a much shorter trip down to Año Nuevo State Natural Reserve in California to film the tagging of northern elephant seals. I've been on safaris in Kenya, Australia, and India, and while each of those is spectacular, seeing the elephant seals at Año Nuevo ranks right up there with the quality of those foreign wild animal experiences. Yet this one is just over an hour's drive from my home in San Francisco. Up until then, I had simply missed it.

This awareness influenced my approach to filming "Ocean Animal Emergency." I wanted simply to follow several of the animals that arrived at the Marine Mammal Center and pay close attention to what happened to them. I hoped that by focusing on a few that we came to care about, we could better understand some of the larger trends affecting these populations.

A northern elephant seal with radio transmitter attached. Common hardware store epoxy is used to glue the transmitter harmlessly to the animal's head. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy Doug Hamilton

Extraordinary lives

One particularly sad case, which we highlight in the film, is the story of Xilia, a harbor seal. After a whole lot of medical attention and speculation about whether she would make it, Xilia started to thrive and was successfully released. They fitted her with a tiny satellite transmitter as part of a new research program to determine what happens to the released harbor seals. Sadly, it appears that Xilia got caught up in a fishing net and was drowned. Her signal started making a straight line out to sea in the pattern that only a boat would travel, not a harbor seal. The day I heard that news, it felt like I had been punched in the stomach.

It's too easy to dismiss the extraordinary lives of all these animals and the lessons we can learn from them because we just don't see what they do. Or maybe we just aren't paying attention. That's too bad, and we are diminished by it. Felicia reminded me of that very poetically in our interview when she said that the migration of the northern elephant seals from Año Nuevo is like the "Serengeti of the Sea." She's right. It really is out of this world, and yet it was right under my nose.

Doug HamiltonDoug Hamilton is the producer and writer of "Ocean Animal Emergency." His other work for NOVA includes First Flower, Secrets of the Samurai Sword, and an upcoming program on the extinction of mammoths and other so-called megafauna at the end of the Ice Age.

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