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More to SeaWorld: A behind-the-scenes peek at SeaWorld's rehabilitation and rescue efforts

SeaWorld San Diego is not just about the rides, shows, and exhibits - The facility is also doing its part in assisting with the health of our planet's biosphere.

SAN DIEGO — SeaWorld San Diego is not just about the rides, shows, and exhibits - The facility is also doing its part in assisting with the health of our planet's biosphere. A behind-the-scenes area, not on exhibit, specializes in rehabilitating and returning animals to their natural habitat.

"All of these animals are kept separate from our collection animals because they come in with various illnesses, and we keep them in these back pools," explained Rescue Supervisor Kim Peterson. 

On my tour, I met a Harbor Seal pup that washed up in Ocean Beach with its umbilical cord still attached. They have hand raised this one-month-old baby, who is starting to eat fish and loves sunbathing. My heart is bursting because these are some of the cutest patients I have ever seen, but it can also tug at your heartstrings to hear about their injuries. 

Next, Kim Peterson showed me a couple of Sea Lions pups that were also rescued. 

"They were pups born last June, May, or June. So not quite a year old yet. They came in thin, and one had wounds on his feet and was probably bitten by another animal. The other one just came in thin. I believe with an abscess on its head. On the top of its head," explained Peterson. 

Kim said these are common injuries with these youngsters. Sea Lions are the number one marine mammal that SeaWorld San Diego rescues, with La Jolla being a trouble spot for them and seals.

"There is a large Sea Lion population established there by the Cove. And so that's where most of the sea lions live in the San Diego area. It used to be years ago that they were scattered more. We would get a lot of calls in the Carlsbad area and down into Imperial Beach and Chula Vista that area. We still get calls from those areas," said Kevin Robinson, Senior Animal Care Specialist at SeaWorld San Diego.

This includes rescuing this Northern Elephant Seal found in Imperial Beach that must be treated for shark bites and dehydration. Along with a Sea Lion pup, nicknamed "Rocky," after x-rays revealed he ingested over 100 rocks and suffered from a potentially deadly bacterial disease. After a series of procedures and some TLC, both animals were successfully released off the coast of San Diego. Unfortunately, some animals need constant care with the possibility of not being returned to the wild.

That looks to be the case with a one and half-year-old Northern Elephant Seal. She was found very thin with a gash on her head and poor vision roughly six months ago. After rounds of treatment have failed to improve her eyesight, the Rescue Team will now consult with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] to determine her future home.

"She does have some sight as well, and they dive very deep and use their vibrissae and whiskers to find a lot of their food. So, they don't rely totally on sight. But at this point in her life, it would not be fair to return her to the great big ocean," explained Peterson.

While this cutie needs extra attention, several other patients were able to be successfully released back into the wild.

Jeni Smith, a Supervisor of the Rescue Program at SeaWorld San Diego, was the captain as we ventured several miles off the San Diego coastline to return an endangered Guadalupe Fur Seal [NOAA MMHSRP PERMIT #24359] and California Sea Lion. Both were returned to the wild after being treated for dehydration and extremely underweight when they were found. 

This is one of only two facilities in California authorized by the federal government to rehabilitate Guadalupe Fur Seals [NOAA MMHSRP PERMIT #24359]. The SeaWorld San Diego team has seen an increase in their presence along our coastline rather than the waters near Mexico.

"Like the Sea Lions and the Harbor Seals in La Jolla, we've seen shifts in their population and where they hang out. That helps us contribute to the scientific community, which helps people learn how to manage the coastlines, how to use it, better understand what's going on fisheries wise, boat traffic, development of residential areas, all kinds of things like that," explained Robinson.

Seals and Sea Lions aren't the only animals that benefit from SeaWorld's rescue and return program. Over the years, all three park facilities have rescued over 40,000 animals, including whales, dolphins, shore birds, and sea turtles. And the facility encourages you to be their eyes and ears if you see an animal in distress or become concerned. 

"If an animal stays in one location for a long period, appears thin, you can see its ribs, it's probably in trouble. If you can see its hip bones, it's probably in trouble. If you can see open wounds, it probably is in trouble," explained Peterson.

You can call 1-800-541-SEAL or 1-800-541-7325. This number will connect you with a team member every day of the year, 24 hours a day. They will always send someone out.

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