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Answering The Call: SeaWorld San Diego

September 06, 2023

Longtime wildlife rescue program has helped more than 40,000 marine mammals since 1965.

Jeni Smith aboard a vessel smiling at the camera Jeni Smith, Rescue Supervisor at SeaWorld. Credit SeaWorld

SeaWorld is an important member of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network. This network includes partner organizations that collaborate with NOAA Fisheries to respond to stranded and entangled marine mammals, including those that are alive and in need of medical assistance. They monitor and rehabilitate protected marine mammal species, including those that are endangered and threatened.

Since its inception in 1965, SeaWorld has rescued more than 40,000 stranded marine mammals. Their highly skilled and dedicated team of specialists inspire people to preserve marine mammals and their habitat. SeaWorld San Diego is committed to wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, habitat protection, and ocean health and conservation initiatives.

The People Behind the Stranding Network logo

Interview Spotlights: Tracy Spahr and Jeni Smith

Growing up in San Diego, Tracy Spahr had always dreamed of working for SeaWorld. Now, as the Director of Public Relations, she has the opportunity to share her passion for the marine environment with the public each day. “Having the opportunity to work at SeaWorld has been incredibly rewarding,” says Tracy. “Our rescue team helps animals in need and contributes to the conservation and scientific research of marine wildlife, and I truly enjoy sharing their dedicated work and rescue stories with the public.”

Tracy expressed that her favorite successes have been the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of Guadalupe fur seals. The seals are currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Through rehabilitation efforts, SeaWorld has gained valuable knowledge that helps protect wild populations of Guadalupe fur seals.

Behind the scenes at SeaWorld San Diego lies a dedicated team of professionals who work every day to rescue and rehabilitate marine animals in distress. Jeni Smith, the Rescue Supervisor at SeaWorld, has been an integral part of this team for the last 3 years. She traces her 23-year career at SeaWorld, and her passion for marine rescue, back to her childhood.

“I grew up hitting the beaches in San Diego with my family, and of course, going to SeaWorld,” says Jeni. “We went as a family all the time, and the trainers and animal care specialists were celebrities in my eyes.”

These childhood memories became a catalyst for a lifelong dream and a career that would see her coordinating rescue missions across 100 miles of beaches and coastline near San Diego. “The Rescue Department has definitely been a passion of mine. I call it the heart of SeaWorld,” says Jeni.

The SeaWorld San Diego Rescue team operates 24/7, 365 days a year, with a hotline for anyone to report stranded or injured animals. The team's responsibilities extend beyond the park's resident animals, rescuing California sea lions, harbor seals, Northern elephant seals, fur seals, sea turtles, and seabirds.

The rescue team's work is not for the faint of heart. Jeni explains that NOAA Fisheries sometimes asks the team to respond to entanglement cases, where whales are caught in fishing gear or marine debris.

“We'll get the call from NOAA that there is an entangled whale off the coastline of San Diego, and that's when our team kicks it into high gear,” Jeni says.

SeaWorld's team is made up of trained members of the Large Whale Entanglement Response program. It works closely with NOAA to dispatch teams and boats to the entangled whale, all of which Jeni coordinates. It's a complex and dangerous task that requires a high level of expertise, safety measures, and collaboration.

“It's a huge operation. It takes hours and hours,” Jeni explains. “There’s a lot of training that is involved in these operations. You can’t just be next to a 40 to 60-foot whale without proper training.”

Guadalupe Fur Seals on a rock

Guadalupe Fur Seals. Credit Jeff Harris/AFSC

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Rescuing marine animals comes with its own set of challenges, like the time they received a call about a stranded pygmy sperm whale. The tide was coming up, making vehicle access impossible, and they had to carry the large animal about 400 yards. Suddenly, they were surrounded by about 100 beachgoers who volunteered to help carry the whale the distance under the professionals’ guidance.

“That was really, really cool to see just people who were going to have a beach day, and they decided to help us carry this massive animal," Jeni says. “It really restored my faith in humanity."

This same sense of collaboration is vital to the marine animal rescue community’s success. Recently, the Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute, another Stranding Network partner, reached out to SeaWorld for assistance with an unusually large influx of animals needing help due to a domoic acid outbreak. Jeni readily traveled to Santa Barbara to lend a helping hand during the crisis, spending a week working shoulder-to-shoulder with their volunteer team.

“I think it was really great to show that collaboration. Just being able to help out another [Stranding Network] facility during that crisis time was really, really important to me, so I'm very happy that SeaWorld supported that and allowed me to go up and help out.”

As part of SeaWorld's ongoing commitment to marine conservation and animal rescue, Jeni urges visitors to recognize the role they play in supporting these efforts. "Part of the proceeds of the tickets that they buy when they come to SeaWorld does help support the rescue program," she says, emphasizing that visitors' contributions go a long way in supporting the vital rescue operations.

Rescue on the Green

In June 2022, SeaWorld received a phone call with a strange and unexpected challenge. A pregnant sea lion had traveled up a lagoon far inland and made her way onto a golf course. It’s normal for pregnant sea lions to seek out dry land; however, they generally stay close to the ocean. When the rescue team arrived, they couldn’t believe just how far inland she had traveled.

The team escorted the pregnant sea lion into a transport unit on their rescue vehicle and returned her to the ocean within an hour of their arrival on the scene. Reunited with her natural habitat, the sea lion immediately plunged into the water and never looked back. While the incident was far from a usual case for the SeaWorld marine mammal response team, helping the animal helped fulfill their mission.

Responding to strandings along 100 miles of beach in Southern California, these dedicated professionals often have to prioritize specific cases while ensuring the safety of other nearby animals. Spahr stresses that even when situations get difficult and there are a lot of factors to consider, these responders truly want to help in any way they can.

How to Help Wildlife Responsibly

First, determine if the animal is truly stranded. A whale, dolphin, or porpoise on the beach should be reported immediately. Many seals and sea lions that haul out and rest on land are not in distress. This includes pups who may just be waiting for mom’s return from a foraging trip. You can evaluate the animal’s behavior from a safe and legal distance, and let others who are nearby know to stay at least 100 yards away (about the length of a football field).

Only trained and authorized responders should approach or pick up a stranded marine mammal. Keep pets leashed and at least 100 yards away, help minimize disturbances if possible, and be aware of hazards or rising tides. Monitor from an area that is safe.

To report a dead, injured, or stranded marine mammal along the West Coast, please contact the West Coast Region Stranding Hotline at (866) 767-6114. For San Diego county, the SeaWork Stranding Hotline is (800) 541-7325. When reporting a stranded marine mammal, include the following information:

  • Date
  • Location of stranding (including latitude and longitude)
  • Number of animals
  • Condition of the animal (alive or dead)
  • Species, if known

Photos or video from a safe and legal distance (100 yards) can also provide valuable information to Stranding Network responders.

Last updated by West Coast Regional Office on April 04, 2024