A Look Inside California's Marine Mammal Center

At this wildlife rescue hospital, no patient has insurance and fish is always on the menu.

By Bob Ecker
Sep 12, 2013 9:00 PMNov 14, 2019 9:27 PM
Mike Adaskveg


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Marin County Headlands Sausalito, Calif.

37d 50' 05" N 122d 31' 51" W


Just five miles west of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, there’s a hospital where no patient has insurance and fish is always on the menu. Tucked into the scenic Marin County Headlands, the Marine Mammal Center treats Pacific harbor seals, northern elephant seals and other pinnipeds, giving visitors an intimate view of wildlife rescue.

SEA LION 911: Staff and volunteers cover a range of more than 600 square miles, locating and transporting stranded, sick or injured animals to the center for care. Conditions treated range from malnutrition and net entanglement to gunshot wounds and disease; patient stays average three to four months.

SCORE A TOUR: Check out the center for free; self-guided audio tours and docentled tours also are available and highly recommended. (It costs $7. Discounts are available; see website for details.)

A young harbor seal patient, too weak to eat on his own, receives a meal via tube-feeding. | Dina Warren

GOOD TO KNOW: Despite its proximity to San Francisco, the area has few services and changeable weather. Dress in layers and bring your own food and drinks.

TAKE A HIKE: Free-access Rodeo Beach, a short stroll from the center, offers numerous trails and picnic spots with sublime ocean views.

HISTORY LESSON: The headlands are dotted with interpretive sites highlighting their role in coastal defense, from mid-19th-century fortifications to Cold War-era anti-aircraft missile batteries.

FEEL SMALL: More hiking trails and photo ops await amid the towering redwood trees of Muir Woods National Monument

, about a half-hour drive north of the center.

Visitors get a seal's-eye view of patient pens and pools at the Marine Mammal Center. | Marine Mammal Center

TGIF: In the area on a Friday afternoon? Don’t miss weekly public hours at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, about 90 minutes north of the center on the Sonoma coast. Tour tide pool habitats, touch a starfish and learn about the lab’s environmental oceanography focus.

GO: A weekends-only bus runs from San Francisco to the headlands, but having your own wheels is the most practical option. Recent construction, including some road closures, was scheduled to end in October; get the most up-to-date route information on the center’s website.

GO DEEPER: Although most patients are released back into the wild or transferred to other facilities, many cannot be saved. Medical procedures open to public viewing sometimes include necropsies, or animal autopsies. Necropsies can determine an individual animal’s cause of death but also inform broader research. The procedure is performed as necessary; upon arrival, ask the staff whether any necropsies are scheduled for that day

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.