Forty years ago, John Cunningham and Jim Stauffer opened Friends of the Sea Lion for a simple reason: They were running out of space.
Stauffer and Cunningham, both Laguna Beach lifeguards at the time, were rescuing sea lions and putting them in Stauffer's backyard. They built a pool, fed the mammals and nursed them back to health.
Decades later, Friends of the Sea Lion, which is now called the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, is the main marine rescue facility in Orange County.
Before the center, Cunningham said, there weren't any organizations, city or county services that could properly address sea lions that washed up on Laguna Beach's shores.
"There was a gigantic need to have something done about it," he said.
There were misunderstandings about sea lions, he said, such as people believing they needed to be wet all the time.
People would try to get the sea lions out to the water, but they might have been sick or just needed to lay out in the sun. The sea lions also posed a danger to people while on the beach.
"The idea of getting involved with marine mammals was a no-brainer," said Cunningham, 72. "I grew up with the ocean and appreciated them."
Coming a long way
In 1971, the two lifeguards held their first meeting, and they soon secured a location across from the Festival of Arts on Laguna Canyon Road, near the sewer plant. Rose Ekeberg, who died last year, signed on as a veterinarian.
FOR THE RECORD:
[This corrects the spelling of Rose Ekeberg's name.]
Also a marine science teacher at Laguna Beach High School, Cunningham tried everything to get the word out about the organization. He added an additional elective that allowed students to come to the center and get hands-on learning.
"We talked to anyone that would sit still long enough to hear about it," he said.
In 1976, they moved to a barn, the center's current location, which can now hold 65 sea lions during busy season, Animal Care Director Michele Hunter said.
When Cunningham and Stauffer first moved to the barn, they did the majority of the building themselves, constructing a pool with the help of Cunningham's students.
The facility has been remodeled since then and now features state-of-the-art equipment, such as a digital X-ray machine, heated flooring, isolation areas and individual filtration systems in the pools.
Rescues and education
For Cunningham, it's easy to pinpoint the center's successes.
"The high points: when we got to release an animal that we knew wouldn't have made it if we hadn't stepped in and helped," he said.
He also enjoys educating people on marine mammals; many were on the verge of extinction at the turn of the century. In the early 1900s, there were only about 100 elephants seals , the retired science teacher said.
Cunningham said he thinks it's important to keep the public aware of our ocean friends.
"Nobody knew about elephant seals, and how deep they could dive and how long they could hold their breath," he said. "It's an incredible animal."
Elephant seals can dive up to 1,000 feet and can hold their breath for 60 minutes, according to Cunningham.
Ups and downs
Cunningham said his journey with the center hasn't been easy, however.
In the beginning, Cunningham was a newlywed with a young daughter and another full-time job.
"There were definitely moments where I wondered, 'What the hell am I doing?' You'd get calls at all times of the night," he said. "Then I figured you can't let it go. You can't give up. I didn't want to admit that it wasn't working. I wanted it to make it."
He never gave up, and he has four decades of rescues to prove it. The center now rehabilitates an average of 250 marine mammals a year.
However, last year's floods caused everyone at the center to worry — every corner of the facility was covered in mud; equipment was destroyed beyond repair.
"Everybody was just standing around looking at it," Cunningham said. "Our vet was devastated."
Then a volunteer said aloud, "It's going to take at least two weeks to clean this up."
Cunningham laughed as he pointed out the tenacity of his 80 unpaid volunteers. Closing the center wasn't an option.
After a couple months and a $250,000 donation by retired game show host Bob Barker, the center was up and running again in February.
FOR THE RECORD:
[This corrects the amount donated by Bob Barker.]
More than a job
Animal Care Director Hunter has been with the center for 20 years. She started out as a volunteer in 1989 and was promoted to a full-time staffer in 2001.
"It's not just a job — you live and breathe it every day," she said. "Even when you have a day off, you're making sure all the animals are doing well. At the end of the day, you feel that if you've saved an animal's life, you've really done something."
Cunningham said he could only dream that the center would be as successful as it is now.
"I can remember walking through the barn early on in the '70s, looking around at everything … hoping that it would have really good people…," he said. "I get to walk around with a big smile on my face and feel good that it's working."
Pacific Marine Mammal Center
Address: 20612 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
Call: (949) 494-3050
Information: Visit pacificmmc.org.