Photo of the SR3 surgery and training area. A stuffed seal pup lies on the operating table for trainees to practice surgery on.

Des Moines Marine Mammal Hospital Is Pacific Northwest’s First

by Caroline Guzman


For many people, one of the perks of living in Washington state is the chance to see charismatic marine wildlife like orcas, sea lions, otters, seals, and many others. But an average of 578 marine animals end up on shore dead or in need of care on Washington coastlines every year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Now, about 100 of these at-risk animals can be treated per year inside Washington state’s first marine wildlife hospital. In honor of Earth Day, the people behind SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research (SR3) joined Des Moines Mayor Matt Pina to cut the ribbon on this new facility.

“The accomplishments of locating SR3 in Des Moines Marina is a statement of our city’s commitment, respect, and our role to assist in the healthy stewardship of Puget Sound,” said Pina during the ceremony. “And our city understands the valuable interface between them. SR3, in addressing the health of marine animals, furthers our goal to see that this Puget Sound remains as healthy as possible.”

Casey McLean and Des Moines’ Mayor Matt Pina cutting the ribbon at the marine wildlife hospital’s grand opening.
SR3 Executive Director and vet nurse Casey McLean and Des Moines’ Mayor Matt Pina cutting the ribbon at the marine wildlife hospital’s grand opening. (Photo: Caroline Guzman)

Just 30 minutes south of Seattle, this 14,000-square foot hospital will serve everything from harbor seals to small dolphins and porpoises. Other known wildlife facilities, such as PAWS and Wolf Hollow, treat harbor seals but don’t possess the equipment to perform marine animal surgeries that this hospital allows. “The SR3 rehabilitation center is really a first for this region,” says Dr. Greg Frankfurter, full-time marine mammal veterinarian at SR3.

A mobile X-ray, portable ultrasound, and two deep rehab pools designed to hold up to 2,000-pound animals, are some of the facility’s unique features. “These things really are what help us provide that next level of care for these animals and figure out what’s going on with them so we can better understand the health of the whole ecosystem,” says SR3 Executive Director and vet nurse Casey McLean. 

The facility can host 11 key species of marine wildlife from Puget Sound: California sea lions, elephant seals, green sea turtles, Guadalupe fur seals, adult harbor seals, northern fur seals, northern sea otters, olive ridley sea turtles, porpoises, dolphins, and Steller sea lions.To rehab these species, the site needs approximately 4,800 gallons of water to maintain the hygiene of the pools and the animals. To reduce the “dumping fill” water waste, SR3 uses a closed system that filters the water from the droppings while the staff adjusts the salinity and sterility of the water so it can be reused. 

Human disturbance is the number one cause that brings a marine animal to a rehab center, but it is not always a physical injury. Behavioral issues, such as when a seal mom abandons its pup, also happen often. McLean explains that when harbor pup seals rest in crowded beach areas, the anxiety can drive seal moms away to never return to the site, leaving behind seal pups without either milk or survival skills.

Much human behavior impacts these animals, including “dog attacks, bone injuries, and then there’s the less obvious things like toxins or overload[ing] with parasites due to warming water from climate change,” says McLean.  

The marine wildlife hospital also features the baby-seal rehabilitation area: 12 square pools, filled about 3 feet deep. Here, the baby seals can swim for a few hours at a time and eat on their own every day while building up their set of skills to survive in the wild. Larger animals will stay in the two round pools, one 12 feet across and another 8 feet across, and each 4 feet deep.

Another critical aspect of this facility is the reduced amount of human contact with its aquatic patients. Inside the enclosure, rehabilitators maintain distance as much as they can. “We handle them the least amount possible. When we feed them, we tend to throw the fish so that they’re not being hand-fed directly from us and think that food comes from people,” says McLean. These efforts help the animals remain wild for when they return to the ocean, she explains. 

“Until the center was constructed, animals had to face long and stressful transports to facilities in California,” says Dr. Frankfurter.  

Before the construction of SR3, animals in need of care had to endure a 15-hour drive to The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. Having a local hospital reduces the stress on the species and reduces the number of emissions from transportation. Although SR3 already owed its unique wildlife-rescue ambulance, building the center cost about $500,000, which McLean called “fairly inexpensive,” considering that the hospital is “fairly small.” 

And with their $1.2 million budget, the center will invest the rest in outreach and educational opportunities. There is hope for an expansion in the future, and SR3 invites the community to continue their support.  

The new building also has created new jobs and volunteer opportunities. SR3’s volunteer projects expand participants’ understanding of these marine species, their diseases, and human impacts affecting their populations. “These practices help us hone protocols and treatment methodologies to help endangered species and to respond to mass casualty events such as oil spills or disease outbreaks,” says Dr. Frankfurter. Volunteers will receive extensive training and hands-on experience. Anyone can apply on SR3’s website

To minimize marine wildlife casualties, SR3 suggests giving sea life animals (especially seal pups) plenty of space — at least 150 feet — and maintaining your pets on a leash. If you encounter an animal in distress or have any questions, contact the Marine Mammal Stranding Network to connect to SR3’s ambulance.

Community reports are essential: Marine animal strandings in the Salish Sea have increased by an average of 40% each year since 2012 and continue to grow. Still, over 90% of animals who wash up in distress go unreported.


Caroline Guzman is an animal and wildlife photojournalist based in Seattle, WA. She covers stories involving animal abuse, animal law, wildlife conservation, and more. Follow her on Instagram @imcarolineguzman and on Twitter @carolineguzman, or contact her via email at imcarolineguzman@gmail.com.

📸 Featured Image: SR3 surgery and training area. Trainees practice surgeries in stuffed animals prior to handling a real one. (Photo: Caroline Guzman)

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