Area’s first critical care center for marine mammals opens as seal pup season approaches

DES MOINES, Wash. — It’s a day Casey Mclean has been building toward for years. Walking through the all-new SR3 SeaLife Rescue Center in Des Moines, Mclean told KIRO 7 the facility fills a major gap in our area’s critical care infrastructure for injured marine mammals.

Until SR3 opened their facility earlier this month, the closest facilities were in Canada and California. Since there’s too much red tape to bring injured marine mammals across an international border, Mclean and a group of die-hard volunteers would routinely make 15-hour treks to the nearest facilities in California.

“Even that was a very select group that we were able to drive down to California,” explained Mclean, who said only certain mammals checked off all the boxes which allowed them to cross state borders. “I’m grateful it was even an option.”

It was always the goal of SR3 to open a facility like this. Mclean said they’re awaiting a few final approvals from agencies that oversee their work, and then they’ll be full steam ahead helping everything from cold-shocked turtles to sea lions, and of course, plenty of baby seals, as pup season is fast approaching.

“You’re in a climate controlled enclosure,” said Mclean, pointing out roughly a dozen small tubs with a series of water pipes below, and warming lamps above. “This is typically where young animals would start off.”

The facility hosts the climate-controlled enclosure, a larger outdoor platform with two tanks capable of holding larger sea animals, and an indoor section where food prep, office work and surgeries can take place. Mclean said in cases where animals don’t survive the trip to the facility, they’ll be equipped to perform autopsies, which could be an even greater help in terms of uncovering what’s happening in Puget Sound.

Rus Highley, the head of Highline College’s MaST Center, said that type of work will boost the more visible critical care work. His students will likely be volunteering – a rare opportunity for students in the Puget Sound region, despite are area’s connection to marine wildlife.

“Historically, these animals have not had an option,” said Highley. “I don’t know how many trips Casey and SR3 have driven to California in their animal ambulance down there, but that’s expensive in times of time and resources.”

Soon, SR3 will be busy. In addition to their newly-expanded role with the recently opened critical care center, they continue the work they’ve historically done tracking the health of our local orca population. Seal pup season is fast approaching, too, a time that keeps Highley and the rest of the stranding network extremely busy as residents and tourists spot animals on our area shores.

If you see a stranded, injured or dead marine mammal on the shore in Washington, you can get in touch with the stranding network to determine if help is needed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommends that people stay at least 100 yards away. The hotline is open for calls 24/7 at 1-866-767-6114.