SAUSALITO – The eyes draw you in first. Round and brown, they seem so trusting, yet almost pleading. Then again, maybe this pod of rescued elephant seal pups is just hungry and looking for a little herring tartare appetizer that sure would hit the spot.
It is nearing lunchtime, after all, and the seals have been lounging poolside at the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands all morning.
Most are studies in docility, exuding almost a Zen patience. But then there's Captain Jack, perhaps the skinniest seal of the lot. You can tell this pup suffers from malnourishment, Marine Mammal Center docents say, by the folds in his paltry pelt. A healthy young elephant seal should be attractively plump, Rubenesque, well on its way to its 4,500-pound adult weight.
Feeding time, apparently, can't come soon enough for Jack. He hoists himself on his front flippers, cranes his head back and lets loose a reverberative bark, more like a squeal, that echoes off the pools that serve as a hospital wing for recovering pinnipeds.
Now, he's galumphed all of his 103 pounds (up from 84 in April) to the fence nearest the overlook, where a tour group is taking in the sight of scores of sea lion and elephant seal patients. He rubs his whiskers against the fence and lets loose another bark. The humans bristle, then giggle; fellow elephant seals remain impassive.
You can stare for hours at these gorgeous animals rescued from 600 miles of coastline, from San Luis Obispo to Mendocino. (Captain Jack, by the way, was rescued from Pirate's Cove, near San Luis Obispo.) But your tour of the Marine Mammal Center, a nonprofit, nongovernmental research hospital, is barely half over.
Got to move on. Lots to see at this facility, which since 1975 has rehabbed 17,500 elephant seals, sea lions, sea otters and other stranded marine mammals, and draws about 100,000 human visitors a year.
Turns out, your next tour stop is the "Fish Kitchen," where volunteers are busy preparing "lunch" for Jack and his cohorts.
They toil behind double-paned glass – in a sort of fish bowl, if you will – sorting the frozen herring into buckets for those mammals advanced enough in their rehabilitation to eat on their own. But it's the elaborate prep work for pups that need to be fed by syringe and tube that fascinates.
Workers wearing blue gloves and red aprons fire up a large stainless-steel meat grinder – dubbed the "Herring-O-Matic 2.0" across the side – and methodically drop fish after fish into the top stem. Moments later, it comes out the other end as pinkish ground fish flesh.
(Aside: It is at this point that you are exceedingly happy that you are separated by the double-paned, smellproof, soundproof glass.)
That ground herring (three to four fish) is mixed with 900 milliliters of a soy-based substance, 1.1 li- ters of water and 700 milliliters of salmon oil in a huge blender until it reaches the consistency of a smoothie, its color a pale brown.
"We call it a fish milkshake, actually," docent Carol Cislowski said.
Then it is poured into syringes so large they would make Keith Richards cringe, and it's connected to tubes snaked into the pups' stomachs. Jack is still in the tube-feeding stage, so he gets 900 ml of the shake, three times a day.
Fattening up the patients is crucial to the Marine Mammal Center's overarching goal, which is to bring the seals and sea lions (and, occasionally, dolphins and porpoises) back to health, then released into the ocean.
But as tour visitors soon learn, this place is more than just a culinary academy. It's a full-service hospital and research center, focusing on the three main reasons the marine mammals get stranded: malnutrition from maternal separation; human interaction (meaning everything from ingesting trash and netting to getting shot by hunters); and illness.
Visitors are given a simulated tour of an operating room, set up in the lobby, in which a video monitor shows how laproscopy cameras determine whether a pup has round worms or other parasites; how ultrasound and EEGs determine heart irregularities and X-rays show fractures.
From June 17 to Sept. 16, the center offers hands-on learning for adults and children with its Drop-In Classroom Experience, where, among other things, the tactile-inclined can handle pelts and skulls from seals and sea lions to delve deeper into veterinary care.
Though the center's primary mission is to care for the marine mammals, it makes sense – both in terms of increasing its donor base and educating the public – to reach out and offer learning programs.
Jim Oswald, the center's communications manager, said the success of treating and releasing 500 to 1,000 marine mammals per year depends on the environmental vigilance of the public.
"It doesn't do (the mammals) any good if we don't educate (people) why they get here in the first place," Oswald said. "We can't hammer people over the head with messages because then they don't feel empowered. They think, 'Oh my God, I feel so guilty.' But everyone, whether they live near the coast or inland, can help save them."
To avoid being overly pedantic, perhaps, the center has turned to art installations to make its points.
One in the courtyard is a looming statue of a monstrous sea-creature-cum-Bigfoot titled "The Ghost Below," by Richard and Judith Long. For materials, the artists used 160 of the 450 pounds of fisherman's netting and trash found in the belly of a sperm whale during a postmortem at the center. The "ghost" comes from a fishing industry term for nets cut loose and set adrift at sea.
It's not just the whales. Ocean "trash" accounts for 17 percent of cancer deaths among sea lions sent to the center. "That cancer," Oswald said, "is related to PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl, a toxic chemical) and environment."
But for Captain Jack and his elephant seal comrades, the road to recovery is laced with fish milkshakes and veterinary care before they are sprung from this joint and can once more bark with impunity back at sea.
THE MARINE MAMMAL CENTER
Where: 2000 Bunker Road, Fort Cronkhite, Sausalito
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
Upcoming event: June 9: "Marine Science Sunday: Summer With the Sea Lions," classroom education and docent-led tours
Information: (415) 289-7325, www.marinemammal-center.org
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.