Marine Mammal Care Center
Los Angeles

My Day on the Oil Spill

My Day on the Oil Spill

An MMCC Perspective by David Bard

The Background

I have been affiliated with the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur (MMCC) since 1995: first as a volunteer, next as part-time staff, then (while working at an animal care facility on the east coast) as a supporter, and finally as a staff member. While I have accrued a good amount of experience working hands-on with marine mammals in a rehabilitation setting, the number of days I have spent doing field work (going to the beach to work with or retrieve animals) is exactly three: once retrieving samples from a dead elephant seal; once doing recon at my job on the east coast, to help determine if an animal needed to be brought in for treatment; and once assisting researchers restraining animals for field study samples.

That all changed in May 2015, shortly after the Refugio oil spill Incident north of Santa Barbara. So why me, when I have relatively little experience in field work? Because I am one of many individuals in the Marine Mammal Stranding Network who is 24-hour Hazwoper (HAZardous Waste OPERations) certified, and also has marine mammal handling experience. Despite the many oil spills that have occurred in California, marine mammals have fortunately avoided major impacts, especially compared to birds. But Refugio was different; in this case, the experience of the individuals and organizations comprising the stranding network would be beneficial.

The details of oil spill (or other hazardous chemical) response requirements, and how that response is managed when an event occurs,varies slightly from state to state. In California, the wildlife aspects of these events are managed by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN). From the OWCN website: “Established in 1994 by the Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) in response to the Exxon Valdez in Alaska and the American Trader in Huntington Beach, the OWCN is administered by the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center in the School of Veterinary Medicine. Recognized as an international leader in oil spill response, the OWCN focuses on four core areas to expediently and effectively offer the best achievable capture and care for oil-affected wildlife.” MMCC is one of the organizations that comprise this network. When an oil spill event occurs, the OWCN implements an organizational structure called the Incident Command System (ICS) in order to manage the personnel and response hierarchy.

In addition to being a member of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network working under rehabilitation guidelines established by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur is an OWCN member. When the ICS is implemented, any personnel deployed to the response work under the site supervisor, regardless of the command structure at their own facility. If oil spill response extends to housing or stabilizing animals at a facility (rather than in the field), the ICS extends to the facility, basically creating two facilities in one: first, the existing rehabilitation hospital, where normal treatments and operations need to carry on uninterrupted; and second, an oil spill response facility, with trained/certified personnel conducting treatments and operations related to the event.

With this in mind, MMCC has made a concerted effort to increase our response capabilities. Despite being spared, for several decades, from a major spill incident affecting marine mammals in Los Angeles County, we have been diligent in maintaining our response supply inventory; proactive in adding spill-related equipment to our infrastructure; and we have gradually increased the number of trained personnel at our facility. Thanks to staffing initiatives, and also to grant funding from organizations such as the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation (HCBF) and the Port of Los Angeles (POLA), MMCC’s Hazwoper certifications have gone from three in 2007 to over a dozen in 2015.

The Trip Up

Still, driving up to the Santa Barbara area with one of MMCC’s community interns, I did not know what to expect. We had received instructions the night before to investigate, on our way up to the spill site, two dolphins reported dead on the beach at separate locations in Ventura County. It was not known if these animals were spill-related; they were well south of the “hot zone” (the area directly impacted by the spill, requiring specialized safety attire such as Tyvek suits) and were not visibly oiled. At 4:30 a.m. we met at MMCC and loaded additional equipment into the MMCC truck: a dolphin stretcher, a mat to prevent carcasses from shifting in the cab, bungee cords, and extra towels (in addition to the boots, nitrile gloves and other safety gear we had loaded prior to the updated task assignment).

Working south-to-north, we reached the first beach at exactly 7:00 a.m. What struck me first was how inaccessible the site really was: There was public parking, and then various arrangements of picnic tables, followed by narrow dirt paths winding through brush too tall to see over. I could not even see the ocean. As we made our way through the paths, we emerged on the other side with a view of the water, which was separated from us by rising dunes and a field of smooth, round boulders. Using the GPS coordinates provided to us by the recon team, we made our way up the beach and located the animal, a common dolphin situated about halfway up the field of boulders. I took some establishing photos, and then called the incident commander.

“What kind of shape is it in?” the voice on the other end of the line asked, meaning the condition of the carcass (fresh, decomposed, etc.). I hadn’t touched the animal at this point, so was only looking at the top. “Um… ok?” I offered. “Well, if you can bring it in, that would be great.” The intern looked at the position and size of the animal, the surrounding rocks, and the distance from the truck, and shook his head. “Well, we at least have to try,” I said.

So he went back to the truck and retrieved the stretcher, and some towels. Crouching, we used the towels to maneuver the dolphin onto the stretcher. As it flipped belly-up, discoloration on its abdomen made it apparent that the animal was further decomposed than I estimated. I called the incident commander back.

“Did you bring your sample kit?” he asked. “Maybe you can just take a swab sample.”

We had not packed any sample kits. “Um… no,” I answered sheepishly.

“Well, see what you can do, we’d like to look at it if you can get it here,” he said.

A direct route was not an option; the path at this end of the dunes was soft sand, and our feet found no footing with the weight of the animal. We ungracefully clambered down the rocks to the firmer sand of the beach. Hoisting turned to dragging. Dragging turned to grunting. All the while, the notion of climbing back over the rocks, through the brush, and across a parking lot loomed over us.

About a quarter mile later, as we approached a large, distinct, fallen (or washed up?) tree trunk, we realized that this retrieval was not going to happen. Opting to cut our losses, and live to hoist another day, we made use of the tree trunk as a de facto landmark, and put the animal on the inland side of it, protected from the surf and tide. Making note of the revised GPS coordinates, I called in our fruitless endeavor and we headed north.

Fortunately, the next carcass, another common dolphin, was better situated. Aside from the awkwardness of a “No Parking” zone on the beach side of the Pacific Coast Highway, forcing us to carry the stretcher across the highway, the retrieval was a success.

The Hot Zone

We arrived feeling like champions. As we pulled in, there was a bustle of activity around our vehicle as the first observations were made on the size, species and sex of the animal. It was offloaded from the truck, and eventually would go down to Sea World for a full necropsy (an animal autopsy). Our stretcher stayed with it, and would be returned at a later date (after going through decontamination, or “de-con”) by drivers using our facility as a stopover to swap transport duties for live animals heading south for treatment. As the spill response progressed, I saw this circuitous route repeated with kennels, Tyvek suits and other equipment as the entire network banded together to organize logistics and needs.

We did not take part in any of the activity surrounding the dolphin, as we were immediately appropriated by two members of the live animal response team and shuttled from the marine mammal stabilization area to the staging area. At this point, the smell of petroleum was already evident in the air, but this was not the refined, scented aroma of a gas station; it was bitter, stung the nostrils and was the kind of stuff that could leave you with a headache after a while.

We were briefed on the site safety notes for that day, signed off on the site safety plan, and headed over to the equipment truck, where we were fitted with Tyvek suits, gloves, boots and other safety equipment. The four of us were assigned to follow up on a report of a sea lion in the “hot zone”, which is a fancy way of saying the stretch of beach directly impacted by the petroleum product. We were not provided with GPS coordinates, which may not have mattered, for the animal was reported to be mobile enough to have possibly moved.

A short drive later, after some confusion in locating the beach access that would put us closest to the reported animal, we presented our credentials to the guards at the entry point. The site was surreal, even before we hit the beach: parking lots which would typically be full for the Memorial Day holiday were deserted, and picnic tables sat quiet and unused, were closed to the public. As we unloaded our rescue gear (kennel, net, herding boards and safety attire) and walked toward the ocean, I was again struck by the challenge of responding along this coastline. From the parking area, we headed to paths that brought us through brush and downhill to stairs leading down to the sand. All this walking, and we had not even traversed the unknown distance along the beach to the animal. We paused at the last landing, in order to suit up before we entered the hot zone: Tyvek jumpsuit, hood, two sets of gloves, and boots.

Once on the beach, we touched base with the cleanup crews and the site safety officer. About a dozen workers in safety gear were raking the sand, skimming as much petroleum product as possible and loading it into buckets for disposal. We were told that they had gone over the same sections of beach for several days running, as each time the tide came in it deposited more black goo in the places that had been cleaned the day before.

Already sweating from the heat, the four of us began our trek. One team member took the boards, one took the net, and two others shared hauling duty for the kennel. The beach was like an alien landscape: it basically looked like someone had taken thousands of cans of black paint and meticulously dumped one on every rock they could find. In some places, a sharp line delineated where the tide had carried oil in and deposited it before receding. The sand itself was littered with “tar balls”, petroleum product that had consolidated into clumps, creating a hazardous waste mine field of sorts. Try as we might to avoid traipsing through the worst of it, our white boots were quickly dyed black from the unseen, tiny particles laced throughout the sand. Occasionally a small clump on the beach would turn out to be a dead crab or fish. Any dead birds we passed were noted for retrieval by avian response teams.

After about a half mile, we spotted an animal on a rock outcropping, cut off from us by the water. Was this our sea lion? As we drew closer, we saw that it was a harbor seal, partly oiled. For safety of both the oil-affected animal and the rescue team, we would not be able to do anything for this animal until it came to shore. The location was noted.

A few hundred yards and a few muscle aches later, the lead for our team held out his arm, motioning for us to stop. “There it is,” he said. Ahead of us, sitting on the rocks just outside of the surf zone, was a small California sea lion pup. We were not close enough to evaluate the animal for oil, but every rock and patch of sand in the immediate vicinity was covered in black, so it was unimaginable that this animal was not affected. Typically, photographs and samples are attempted prior to interacting with the animal, but because of its proximity to the water there was a risk of losing our patient to the ocean if we did not restrain it, so photos and samples were pushed until after conducting the rescue.

We drew in with herding boards; our priorities were to stay safe, keep the animal from escaping to the water, and capture it. Since I have little background in field retrieval, I passed the net off to a more experienced member of our team. It seems I had no need to worry, however, as the animal was quite lethargic and put up a minimal amount of protest, merely lifting its head and vocalizing. Once the sea lion was netted, the net was passed off to me so that I could keep the animal immobilized long enough to photograph it “in situ”, and collect samples. We estimated the animal to be 20-30% oiled, mostly on its underside where it had been sitting on the rocks. We logged the GPS, took fur swabs, filled out a collection card for affixing to the kennel, loaded the animal up, and initiated the chain of custody paperwork for both our new patient and the samples.

The walk back seemed even longer, as the day had grown hotter, and we now had a kenneled sea lion in tow. We were required to stop at the de-con zone, where empty, portable pools were situated, where we could remove our contaminated gear. There was a plastic-covered chair in each one so that we could sit and peel off our Tyvek and nitrile. Workers were on hand to help us cut away the attire, and everything was disposed of. They also scrubbed down the capture net.


Back at the stabilization area, I was introduced to a young family not directly associated with the spill response. This was their property – their home – that looked out on what I imagined was a lovely view before all this happened. They had come here because of the serenity and natural beauty, they told me. I looked around; though my first day at the spill site was early on as far as pinniped response, the beach cleanup had been going on for days, and I was impressed with the level of temporary infrastructure that had built up at Refugio. In addition to the equipment and supply needs, which had taken over the site in stacks that seemed to rival a small military response in their size, there were things in place to address all the logistics of bringing hundreds or thousands of people to one place and organizing them: Mobile administrative space, meals, restrooms, and more. One of these was the M*A*S*H unit, a vehicle with a veterinary treatment room built into the back of it. The site supervisor told me I needed to eat, so I fed myself with one of the lunches provided. Afterward, I was asked to join the site veterinarian and take part in the first ever field stabilization of a pinniped facilitated by OWCN during an oil spill, the sea lion I had helped retrieve from the beach. I restrained our patient for treatment, and she evaluated the animal, administered necessary fluids and medication, and collected additional samples.

Being the first day of actual use for the M*A*S*H unit for marine mammals, equipment was still being consolidated. A pitcher for mixing electrolytes, and tubes for the gavage feed, needed to be fished out for use. And then back into the Tyvek I went, a new suit for a new procedure. Despite the unfamiliarity of the treatment surroundings to me, and the untested nature of the unit itself, everything was uneventful and went as anticipated. Fortunately for my pride, the animal did not escape out of the back of the truck and into the Santa Barbara countryside. I did joke that with my increasing level of administrative duties at my own facility, I had to come to the oil spill to get to work with any animals. Now somewhere in the OWCN archives, there is an official photo of me participating in pinniped field stabilization.

Heading Home

As the spill response progressed, MMCC involvement increased beyond sending Hazwoper-certified staff and volunteers to the Refugio site. Had this been a typical year, we would have stepped into our role as a wash and treatment facility, but we were already at capacity due to unprecedented numbers of California sea lion patients. So our facility was used for stabilization and temporary housing of oiled patients who were being transported to Sea World San Diego for long-term treatment. An area at MMCC was designated for oiled patients, with a second enclosure added during the evenings when we received multiple arrivals. In order to prevent cross-contamination, as well as lessen the impact of caring for the current patients already in our care, designated staff was scheduled each morning and evening for the 3 ½ week duration of our response.

During the transport stabilization, MMCC had 2-3 people “on-call” and ready to respond (often all evening, but at least until 7:30 p.m.) for 23 straight days, and in all logged almost 80 hours addressing stabilization needs for a total of 14 live animals that came through our facility. This is in addition to over 60 hours for travel and duties at the spill site itself.

Over the course of the overall response at Refugio, a total of 62 live marine mammals and 57 live birds would be collected for treatment.

Although Oil Spills are never a positive, we always strive to learn and improve during these events. Members of the network organizations had the opportunity to work more closely together, sharing different methods of marine mammal rehabilitation. Dozens of our newer volunteers were exposed to the network, which has reinforced the push towards the required certifications. Of course, the ideal scenario would be to never have another oil spill, however history does not support this, thus we stay ready.

As the community intern and I left the spill site in Santa Barbara County that first day, we steered the MMCC truck through the small streets heading toward the freeway. Our heads were turned as we heard a toot on the horn of a nearby vehicle. Looking over, we saw the car was driven by a lady who had apparently spotted the orange-and-black MMCC logo with stylized seals and sea lions proudly emblazoned on its side. She was giving us the thumbs-up.

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