For more than 50 years, SeaWorld has been on the front lines of a mission to rescue, rehabilitate and return injured marine animals to their natural environments.
This past May, the organization reached a somber milestone of surpassing 40,000 animal rescues. This spotlights an unfortunate reality for marine animals that share space with humans: They continue to face threats of starvation, habitat destruction, boat strikes, natural disasters and more. With rescue teams in San Diego, Orlando and San Antonio who are on call 365 days a year, SeaWorld is one of the largest marine-animal rescue organizations in the world for distressed, injured and orphaned animals.
The group’s mission of helping animals in need first began in 1965, when a beached Dall’s porpoise was rescued. Since then, it has helped save a number of diverse species, such as aquatic birds, pinnipeds, turtles, manatees, whales, dolphins, otters, and a wide range of other animals and fish.
This past summer, the San Diego team rescued five threatened Guadalupe fur seals. The seals were rescued in partnership with the Pacific Marine Mammal Center and received rehabilitative care at the San Diego location— one of only two facilities in the United States authorized to rehabilitate Guadalupe fur seals. After successful rehabilitation, the seals went back home to the Pacific Ocean.
Guadalupe fur seals have faced trouble over the past several years. An unusual mortality event (UME) occurred from January 1, 2015, to September 2, 2021. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, a UME is “a stranding that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response.”
ANIMAL-RESCUE AND CARE SPECIALISTS
The SeaWorld team of veterinarians and animal-care experts have amassed substantial expertise during the past 50 years, some of which is used by other zoos and aquariums worldwide. Each rescue team member undergoes training in the field alongside stranding network partners. They must also have a strong working knowledge of nets, boats, animal safety, transporting animals, oil spills, first aid, CPR and water rescues. Rescue supervisors average 10-plus years of animal-care experience, and rescue curators and park rescue leaders average more than 20 years. The cumulative experience enables the cultivation and training of the next generation of experts.
There are dedicated rescue and rehabilitation facilities at every park. Each is equipped to care for the species most often rescued. For example, seals, sea lions and sea otters on the West Coast, and manatees and dolphins on the East Coast.
SeaWorld Orlando is the largest manatee rescue operation in the US and one of only five critical-care centers in the US. Its 5-acre rescue center has the capacity to care for up to 40 manatees at a time, and its facilities have a wide array of critical-care amenities, including lifting floors, top-of-the-line therapeutic and diagnostic equipment, and expert veterinary staff.
STUDY OF ANIMALS
Rehabilitation and medical treatments are highly specialized and challenging due to a variety of factors, including logistics, physiology and anatomy. The experience gained by caring for such a diverse set of species, and providing critical care to rescued animals and specialized care to neonatal and geriatric cases, as is typical in a zoological setting, provides insight and knowledge into animal health and wellness that cannot be replicated by the study of animals outside of human care.
SeaWorld also has a unique dolphin care sys- tem that involves conducting medical tests and procedures immediately upon intake. This has substantially increased survival rates among rescued dolphins. It also pioneered several species-specific medical treatments, such as custom nebulizers, scales, blood parameters, milk matrix, intubations, surgeries and stem-cell treatments that allow animal caretakers to provide quick and effective treatment, yielding greater positive outcomes. Through the study of dolphins in human care, scientists can examine aspects of dolphin biology and anatomy that are difficult or impossible to study in their natural habitats.
SPECIALIZED EMERGENCY CARE
Rescued animals suffer from various conditions, such as starvation, cold stunning, dehydration, shark attacks, propeller wounds and entanglements, and many are found to be dependent orphans. These conditions have a wide span of causes, from natural events such as drops in temperature and displacement from storms to anthropogenic conditions including oil spills, fishhook and line injuries, ingestion of foreign items (e.g., plastic), boat strikes, and lack of food sources from pollution.
Justin Viezbicke, California marine mammal stranding network coordinator in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast region, says: “Marine animals face a number of threats in their daily lives, both man-made and from natural causes, and it’s a sad fact that when they become sick or injured, many of them will not survive without help. Dedication and support from organizations like SeaWorld is essential in ensuring healthy populations, and we are proud to partner with them to work toward our common goal of marine-animal conservation.”
One recent success story with a displaced Laysan albatross occurred when the bird was rescued from an agricultural field far away from the ocean, though they are meant to live their entire lives at sea. This species is near-threatened and native to the northwestern Hawaiian islands. The bird was able to receive the fluids and nutrition it needed to recover and was later returned to its ocean habitat.
Another success story happened earlier this year when a pregnant sea lion found in the center of a California golf course made national headlines. With no visible injuries and after performing a health exam on the sea lion, the San Diego rescue team safely transported the animal to the ocean at Carlsbad State Beach.
PROVIDING LONG-TERM CARE
The overarching goal is always to return rescued animals to their natural environments. However, certain health conditions can make survival without human care unlikely or impossible. In those instances, wildlife authorities determine whether an animal can be returned, and if not, zoos and aquariums provide long-term care and permanent homes.
For example, each park has a sea turtle habitat that includes rescued sea turtles, each deemed non-releasable by wildlife authorities. SeaWorld San Diego is also a forever home to five southern sea otters initially stranded and rescued as part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation Program and deemed by wildlife authorities to be non-returnable. Providing long-term care to nonreturnable animals enables guests at its parks to learn more about the specific challenges they face.
IT TAKES A COMMUNITY
Marine-animal rescue is a community effort and mission to protect marine animals and their habitats, one animal, one species, one ecosystem at a time. SeaWorld is a vital part of a large network that includes state and federal wildlife agencies such as NOAA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, nongovernment animal-rescue organizations, nonprofits, and other zoos and aquariums, all of which work together to protect marine animals and their habitats.
Sadly, with increasing UMEs and heightened risks facing marine animals, the need to rescue and rehabilitate animals is more pressing than ever. In addition to surpassing 40,000 animal rescues, SeaWorld recognizes the progress that has been made in animal care and conservation—thanks in no small part to organizations like the Guy Harvey Foundation, which has elevated these important issues to readers through 40 editions of Guy Harvey Magazine.