8 sea lions released as the Pacific Marine Mammal Center’s new CEO talks expansion plans
Peter Chang and his two boys stood with dozens who watched eight healthy sea lions dive into the ocean and frolic and surf through the waves off Aliso Beach.
It was early Sunday, Aug. 26, and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center was releasing its last large group of rehabilitated sea lions for this year. So far, there have been more than two dozen releases. Ten more animals are still in treatment.
The Laguna Beach center is responsible for rescuing and rehabilitating marine mammals along 53 miles of Orange County coastline.
It has rescued 130 animals since January.
That includes 74 sea lions, 42 elephant seals, a harbor seal, three Guadeloupe fur seals and 10 dolphins. The group also responded to a dead whale that washed ashore in Dana Point and has helped with two gray whale entanglements this year.
“The coastline is a big part of our Orange County and Southern California culture and identity,” said Chang, who in July took over as the center’s new CEO. “PMMC plays an important role in the ecosystem and vitality of these coastlines with the work that we’re doing with animal conservation. It’s a beautiful thing to see that our efforts are effective with the release of these healthy animals.”
Chang said he also witnessed on Sunday the passion of his staff, volunteers and center donors who came out to watch the sea lions.
It was that passion that drew the 45-year-old to the marine mammal center, he said. He previously served as executive director of The Child Creativity Lab, a nonprofit in Santa Ana focusing on hands-on creativity to empower youth.
8 sea lions released off Aliso Beach #PMMC #Lagunabeach pic.twitter.com/DmYJf5eA4d
— erika ritchie (@lagunaini) August 27, 2018
Chang joins the center, founded in Laguna Canyon in 1971 as the state’s first marine rehabilitation center, as the organization looks forward to a physical expansion and increasing its role beyond rehabilitation to include published research in marine sciences and ocean conservation.
“The animals are a marker for the overall health of our ocean waters, which is clearly important to everyone,” Chang said. “We have an opportunity to study and contribute to finding solutions that have broad impact on both marine animals and the ecosystem they live in.”
Bringing in Chang allows Keith Matassa, who was the center’s executive director, to focus on expanding the center’s animal care, research and collaborative efforts.
In September, Chang will bring a new proposal to the Laguna Beach City Council to add more space for education to the center along with three additional isolation pools – a 5,000 gallon pool and two 2,900 gallon pools. That would bring the total number of pools up to 10.
In January, the council approved plans for a $2 million water conservation and reclamation system at the center. This request would add to that project and combined, the expansion is expected to cost $5 million and break ground in summer 2019.
The sea lions released Sunday – named Mendoza, Cardigan, Demogorgan, Loki, Quesadilla, El Guapo, Eliza and Gesundheit – have each been at the center from between two and four months.
As they swam out to sea, two of the group stayed in the surf line, leading some watching on the beach to wonder if they weren’t ready to head out.
“It takes them a little time to get their sea legs,” Krysta Higuchi, spokesperson for the center, said. “It could be they’re playing in the surf, which is what they like to do before they head out.”
Juliette Palicke, 10, took video as the sea lions raced from their transport kennels to the water.
She kept special watch for Demogorgan, rescued in Newport Beach on May 17. The young sea lion had been found starving and dehydrated weighing only 33.9 pounds. On Sunday, Demogorgan weighed a hefty 90.1 pounds.
Juliette, of Yorba Linda, was among 174 children who took part in the center’s Camp Pinniped, a week-long summer program that teaches children ages 8 to 13 about marine mammal rescue, rehabilitation and release. She helped take care of Demogorgan.
“It was cool and really awesome,” she said after the release. “They get to go home and see their families.”
Longtime Laguna Beach resident Susie Stiso’s eyes brimmed with tears as she watched the sea lions swim out to sea.
“They look so healthy and happy,” she said. “The way they were jumping and leaping, they were so happy.”