Ocean Animal Emergency

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: November 25, 2008

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. NOVA takes you inside this very special ER to witness the efforts of a renowned team 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.

Not only are these animal patients endearing, they are also sending us an urgent message about the health of our oceans. [Doug Hamilton, who spent months behind the scenes at the Marine Mammal Center, explains more in his Producer's Story.]

Veterinarians Frances Gulland and Felicia Nutter direct medical treatment at the center. In the late 1990s, Gulland first suspected a link between wrenching neurological symptoms afflicting marine mammals and domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by algal blooms. Now, Gulland and Nutter work with a team of passionate volunteers to rescue sick and dying animals languishing on beaches. All too many of the animals are victims of the deadly domoic acid poisoning; others are malnourished pups separated from their mothers; and some bear deep scars that are the result of being entangled in plastic trash floating in our oceans.

Veterinarians at the center treat animals using a combination of traditional hands-on care and cutting-edge technology. The goal is to rehabilitate each animal and release it back into the wild.

According to Paula Apsell, NOVA's senior executive producer, the program is much more than the story of these compassionate caretakers. "This documentary focuses on our changing environment as well as the innovative techniques pioneered at the Marine Mammal Center that are saving aquatic animals around the world."

NOVA travels to Oahu with Dr. Gulland as she applies practices developed at the center to save an endangered Hawaiian monk seal, a species on the brink of extinction. Says producer Hamilton, "With an estimated 1,200 Hawaiian monk seals remaining in the world, the survival of every individual is vital."

Dan Costa, a biologist from the University of California, Santa Cruz, is among the researchers featured in the film. He studies healthy elephant seals in the wild using satellite tags, which are glued to the elephant seals' heads like "electronic yarmulkes," as Costa puts it. Costa's satellite tracking has revealed an extraordinary migration that was previously hidden underwater: Some animals have been shown to make a roundtrip beyond the international dateline, a distance nearly twice the width of the United States. They do it alone every year, and most return to the exact same beach. Dr. Nutter marvels at the elephant seals' annual migration route, "It's like the Serengeti of the sea, but nobody sees it."

The experts interviewed in the film believe that many of the maladies plaguing marine mammals reflect the declining health of our oceans and the profound effect that humans have on the environment. Hamilton describes the nearly 1,000 animals treated each year at the Marine Mammal Center as "canaries in a coal mine." He adds, "We wanted to show the links between human behavior, the deteriorating health of marine mammals, and the destruction of their habitat."

Program Transcript
Program Credits

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Ocean Animal Emergency

A harbor seal pup named Xilia, suffering from a hard-to-diagnose ailment, is one of the patients NOVA followed at the Marine Mammal Center.

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© | Created November 2008