40 years of rescuing marine mammals

Co-founder elaborates on the early days of the Pacific Marine Mammal center, which is now the go-to rescue facility in Orange County.

August 04, 2011|By Joanna Clay,
  • WHATS UP THERE?: Winford the elephant seal, who was rescued from Crystal Cove, peers out from one of the pools at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, where he is getting his strength back.
WHATS UP THERE?: Winford the elephant seal, who was rescued… (DON LEACH, Coastline…)

Forty years ago, John Cunningham and Jim Stauffer opened Friends of the Sea Lion for a simple reason: They were running out of space.

Stauffer and Cunningham, both Laguna Beach lifeguards at the time, were rescuing sea lions and putting them in Stauffer's backyard. They built a pool, fed the mammals and nursed them back to health.

Decades later, Friends of the Sea Lion, which is now called the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, is the main marine rescue facility in Orange County.

Before the center, Cunningham said, there weren't any organizations, city or county services that could properly address sea lions that washed up on Laguna Beach's shores.

"There was a gigantic need to have something done about it," he said.

There were misunderstandings about sea lions, he said, such as people believing they needed to be wet all the time.

People would try to get the sea lions out to the water, but they might have been sick or just needed to lay out in the sun. The sea lions also posed a danger to people while on the beach.


"The idea of getting involved with marine mammals was a no-brainer," said Cunningham, 72. "I grew up with the ocean and appreciated them."


Coming a long way

In 1971, the two lifeguards held their first meeting, and they soon secured a location across from the Festival of Arts on Laguna Canyon Road, near the sewer plant. Rose Ekeberg, who died last year, signed on as a veterinarian.

[This corrects the spelling of Rose Ekeberg's name.]

Also a marine science teacher at Laguna Beach High School, Cunningham tried everything to get the word out about the organization. He added an additional elective that allowed students to come to the center and get hands-on learning.

"We talked to anyone that would sit still long enough to hear about it," he said.

In 1976, they moved to a barn, the center's current location, which can now hold 65 sea lions during busy season, Animal Care Director Michele Hunter said.

When Cunningham and Stauffer first moved to the barn, they did the majority of the building themselves, constructing a pool with the help of Cunningham's students.

The facility has been remodeled since then and now features state-of-the-art equipment, such as a digital X-ray machine, heated flooring, isolation areas and individual filtration systems in the pools.


Rescues and education

For Cunningham, it's easy to pinpoint the center's successes.

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