The Marine Mammal Center is here to serve. They will introduce you to new friends and the menu is made to order -- whatever your dietary requirements.
The new Marine Mammal Center is a $32 million hospital in the Marin Headlands, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Volunteers and staff from the center rescue seals and sea lions from all along 600 hundred miles of California coast. The sick and injured animals are nursed back to health, and then returned to the wild as soon as possible.
The rescue missions began in 1975 with some old bathtubs and jury-rigged fencing. There were just three volunteers, but the need was big.
Over the years the center grew to 800 volunteers with 40 paid staff members. They worked in a hodgepodge of makeshift pools and pens pieced together over time.
Now, after three years of construction, the center is beginning a new chapter with a new hospital. The patients recuperate in pens and pools designed specifically for each species.
"This is going to make our care of the animals better in so many ways," Executive Director Jeff Boehm said.
The animals have already moved in but crews are still finishing the public education parts of the building.
The new facility is designed so visitors can peek through windows and look down from an observation deck to learn more about the care of the animals.
"They will be able to walk through almost every functional aspect of the Marine Mammal Center," Boehm said.
There are more than 100 animals at the center; keeping up with all the medications and feedings is a constant juggling act.
Feeding a reluctant patient can be a real challenge. Young sea lions have to be fed through a tube until they can eat on their own.
"It's a little scary in the beginning," seven year volunteer Carol Wilson said. "They have very sharp teeth and they bite and they don't want to have a tube stuffed down their throat. But you learn eventually and you also learn they really need it, so you do what you can to make sure they get fed."
Visitors can also learn about them through new, interactive exhibits.
"For instance, touch the head of the California sea lion (display) and you'll see on the monitor what's called an EEG or a brain scan," Boehm said.
Visitors can touch the back flipper and see an X-ray of the animal's broken bones. They can also look into the lab where researchers do post-mortem exams.
"Analyzing what the cause of death was for an animal can lead to discoveries that are immense about the ocean health, the health of these populations, the health of that individual animal," Boehm said.
The site of the Marine Mammal Center was originally a missile silo. The silo was underground and it now holds a high-tech water filtration system for the new hospital.
"We treat over 600-700 animals a year and that's a lot of water we want to make sure is pristine," communications manager Jim Oswald said.
Center officials say they have made the new facility as green as possible with lots of recycled building materials.
There are solar panels on the pens and the ceiling tiles made of seaweed.
The hospital is opening just in the nick of time. There are a record number of distressed animals coming in this spring, so the volunteers and staff already have their hands full.
The Marine Mammal Center opens to the human public June 15, 2009. Admission is free.
Written and produced by Jennifer Olney