The Pacific Marine Mammal Center’s 50th Anniversary


Kayden Mandley

As the seals and sea lions undergo rehabilitation, they are able to swim, eat, and play with each other.

Kayden Mandley, Photojournalist

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Since 1971, the mammal center has saved and nurtured over ten thousand sea animals from sea lions, to seals, to elephant seals, to turtles, and so much more! And recently, a Guadalupe fur seal was taken back into the water with the help of just a few paid workers and 200 volunteers.

It all began with three locals, Jim Stauffer, John Cunninggham, and Rose Eckberg, who came together to save ill pinnipeds (an aquatic mammal such as a seal or walrus) that had been washing up onto the shore of the beaches of Orange County 50 years ago. Stauffer, who was a Newport Beach lifeguard at the time, felt that it was his duty to save the lives of these mammals. So, with a mattress, some box strings, and two pillows, Stauffer created a mini habitat for the baby seal that he had rescued. Eckberg, a veterinarian, gave the pinniped some antibiotics every day for three weeks until they both decided that the seal was safe and healthy enough to be released back into the water in Laguna Beach.

Making a name for himself as the “sea lion guy” after rescuing a number of aquatic animals, Cunningham contacted Stauffer and the two began working together. Their work became essential because there were not many places to take care of sick and injured sea animals.

In 1976, the operation relocated to where it now resides in an abandoned barn off of Laguna Canyon Road. Cunningham also became the director after Stauffer moved up to Northern California. From then, Cunningham took marine science courses in school in order to gain more knowledge about marine life and be more educated in how to take care of the animals. “John wanted to see how important it was to be involved with the treatment of the animals,” explains his wife, Stephanie Cunningham, “he didn’t want to just teach a subject; he wanted to see the total picture.”

Today, you can make an appointment to go into the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach to visit the sea life that is undergoing treatment, buy merchandise, and learn about life under the water. There are also several volunteer opportunities. (For those 14 to 17 years old, you can apply for a junior counselor position. For those 18 and over, you can volunteer at the Docent and Gift Shop. For those 21 and over, you can volunteer at the Animal Care facility.) During the summer, kids can take part in Camp Pinniped, the summer camp that the facility holds where you can witness a marine mammal hospital in action, learn about rehabilitating seals and sea lions, and take part in other exciting activities like weighing fish, making fish smoothies, cleaning pens, creating art, and more! Lastly, the center has many internship and externship openings for those who are considering a more serious future taking care of marine life.

Sarina Tayui (12) thinks that “it’s pretty cool that there are still people out there… who care and put in so much work to save the sea animals!” Seeing as this corporation started out with just one man trying to do the right thing for the sick pinnipeds, it is a great achievement that the Pacific Marine Mammal Center has been rescuing, reviving, and nursing sea animals for 50 years now. Thanks to this dedicated operation, and others alike, the world can feel more at peace for the safety of our sea animals.