In a small building in a corner of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center property on Laguna Canyon Road, several boys clustered around a large, plush pinniped.
Pinnipeds — the suborder of large marine mammals that includes walruses, sea lions and the different types of seals—are the name of the game this summer at the center, which is holding yet another season of its runaway hit, Camp Pinniped.
The week-long summer camp teaches kids all about the center, which rescues, rehabilitates and releases stranded or injured sea lions, harbor seals and elephant seals.
Education coordinator Kirsten Sedlick was using the pinniped model, a recent acquisition, to teach the kids to evaluate such things as heart rate during a rescue, and to search for parasites. They also learned to tube-feed the “creature.”
“It’s been the best teaching tool we have,” said Emily Wing, the center’s marketing and development director.
The camp is being held for seven weeks this summer. Most of the campers come from the local area, Wing said, but there are also some out-of-towners; one recent camper was from Japan.
Two siblings from Phoenix have come to the camp every year for the past five years on summer vacation.
“It’s gotten so popular,” Wing said of the program; this summer’s spaces are all filled, although the center has added several weeks of camp since its inception around seven years ago.
Each camper is assigned their own marine mammal from the center’s current residents, upon which they also perform observations.
The kids then write a poem or letter to their charge at the end of the week, including advice for when the animals go back into the wild.
Plenty of games are also scheduled in the week-long curriculum; for example, campers run obstacle courses that simulate animal rescues. The camp also holds a pirate theme day.
“It teaches them something while they’re not paying attention,” Wing said.
Measuring fish for feeding teaches math; the letter activity teaches writing.
Campers also help muck cages and perform other such menial duties.
“They learn to do everything that our volunteers do,” Wing said.
One volunteer showed the kids how to properly feed fish to the pinnipeds, showing that the fish has to go in headfirst to prevent the gills from opening, which would catch the fish in the animal’s throat.
The center names incoming animals in themes; rescues near the Fourth of July resulted in pinnipeds named Betsy Ross or Ben Franklin, while another set of animals — including Cheerio, Short Stack and Hash Brown — was named after breakfast foods.
The center’s current star is Nicholas, a one-month-old who was found when he was only about a day old.
Nick happily crawled in and out of new volunteer Molly Halligan’s arms in the center’s nursery, where the concrete floor is strewn with fleece blankets, while entranced children and adults watched him from a nearby window.
The center gives him personal attention because he was found at such a young age and will not return to the wild. Several such non-releasable past residents have been sent to other refuges.
But the majority of the center’s residents are eventually released back into the wild.
The last day of the camp is a half-day at the beach, where a real, live marine mammal release is planned.