Seattle Aquarium staff lend a helping hand in marine mammal rehabilitation: Part 2

Julie Carpenter and Mariko Bushcamp

Seattle Aquarium bird and mammal team members Julie Carpenter and Mariko Bushcamp recently traveled to The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California to assist in the care and rehabilitation of sick and injured marine mammals. The Marine Mammal Center is a nonprofit research hospital and educational center dedicated to global conservation of marine mammals through their rescue and rehabilitation work, as well as educational outreach and scientific research efforts.

Julie and Mariko were able to assist in important rehabilitation efforts, learn more about the West Coast marine mammal stranding network, and bring back a wealth of knowledge to the staff and visitors of the Seattle Aquarium. Through this collaborative relationship, we hope to continue to educate people about the critical work being conducted at The Marine Mammal Center and the many environmental issues affecting marine mammals.

Learn about Julie and Mariko’s experience in this five-part blog series.

Part 1: An opportunity to assist at The Marine Mammal Center
Part 2: Northern elephant seals

Elephant seals pups are the second most common patient at The Marine Mammal Center (California sea lions are the most common, more on that later) and are admitted primarily from February through June. These pups are usually washed away from their rookery (breeding grounds) during storms or have not successfully learned how to forage resulting in malnourishment.

Julie and Mariko tube feed an elephant seal Photo © The Marine Mammal Center
Julie and Mariko tube feed an elephant seal
Photo © The Marine Mammal Center


Care of these animals includes daily cleaning, feeding, medical checkups and regular weighing. All care follows specific guidelines to ensure animal and human safety. Protocols must be followed to avoid the animals becoming too acclimated to humans. Talking is only permitted when necessary and at low volumes. Large boards are placed between the animals and humans in an effort to keep the animals from acclimating to people walking near them. Elephant seal pups that do not know how to hunt for food or swallow whole fish are initially fed using a tube. Tube feeding is not as difficult as it sounds since marine mammals are designed to swallow large fish whole. A small feeding tube is passed down the animal’s throat and into its stomach relatively easily, then one person gently restrains the animal while the other person places the tube into the correct position so a mixture of blended fish, fish oil, vitamins and medications can be poured through the tube. Other animals are kept away with boards to ensure safety. Tube feeding is done two to four times a day depending on the animal’s specific needs.

Mariko waiting her turn to wheel her elephant seal onto the scale for weighing Photo © The Marine Mammal Center
Mariko waiting her turn to wheel her elephant seal onto the scale for weighing
Photo © The Marine Mammal Center


Weighing the elephant seals was definitely one of the “cuter” jobs. Elephant seals, like our local harbor seals, can only crawl on land using their small front flippers, so they are briefly lifted into a wheelbarrow and wheeled onto a platform scale. Elephant seal pups usually weigh about 70 pounds at birth; they more than triple their body weight to 220–250 pounds during the approximately four weeks they nurse to receive milk from their moms. Maternal care usually ends at that point, and the moms abandon their pups on the beach.

The Center’s elephant seal patients are often admitted weighing less than 100 pounds. When pups appear more food-motivated they begin “fish school,” where fish is offered in a variety of ways to elicit their hunting instincts. All feeding data and observations are carefully recorded for analysis.

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