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Marine Mammal Rescue Program

About AquaFacts: AquaFacts are a resource for students who are looking for information on the animals at the Aquarium or other Aquarium-related topics. Here, we’ve compiled some of the most frequently asked questions that we’ve received about our Marine Mammal Rescue Program. The answers come from our biologists and the people who work in the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. 

Marine Mammal Rescue Program

Questions & Answers

What is the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre?

The Marine Mammal Rescue Centre cares for marine mammals found injured, ill or abandoned, until they can be returned to their natural habitats.


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Why does the Aquarium involve itself with marine mammal rescue?

The mission of the Vancouver Aquarium is to effect the conservation of aquatic life through display and interpretation, education, research and direct action. We have expertise in marine mammal care. Additionally, the research staff and facilities at the Aquarium, in association with local universities, organizations and other aquariums, ensure that expertise is accessible, and that any information gained is used in ethical, relevant and constructive ways.

What animals does the program accept?

The program will rescue any marine mammal. In the past, we have worked with harbour seals, Steller sea lions, northern fur seals, northern elephant seals, sea otters, and some cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) species. We have also been involved in the rescue of several sea turtles.  The Marine Mammal Rescue Program typically rescues about 100 animals per year but has had over 150 animals under its care in one year. In 2016, 174 animals were admitted.

Harbour seals are not endangered, so why do we rescue so many of them?

It is the humane thing to do. Many times the animals need rescuing as a result of human activity and interference; for example, seals could be suffering from injury due to boat strikes or dog bites, or pups may have been separated from their mothers by people on the beach. Researchers can also use blood samples and other data acquired through the care of these animals to provide information about the health of animals and their habitats. Should a problem arise in the harbour seal population in the future, there will be a significant amount of information for scientists to consult.

What dangers do marine mammals face?

Oil spills: oil is especially dangerous to sea otters as it penetrates their fur and destroys its buoyancy and insulating capacity.  With any marine animal however,  oil can coat their bodies, get in their eyes and even into their lungs and stomachs.

Encounters with boats: boats contribute to marine noise pollution and can strike marine mammals.

Entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris: seal pups that have swallowed fish hooks have been admitted to the Rescue Centre.  In 2011 “Flash Gordon” a male California sea lion was rescued after he had swallowed a hook with a fishing flasher attached to it.  He was successfully released back to the ocean!

Beaching: we do not know why cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) beach themselves, but when on land, their immense weight can crush their organs.  Their bodies are built for life in the water, so when they are fully exposed to the air, this causes further problems and can result in death on land.

Illness: malnourishment is the most common illness and prevails with orphaned seal pups. Marine mammals are also vulnerable to viral, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic infections.

Pollution: marine debris (see above) and chemical pollutants are found in the ocean, impacting marine mammals or the food they eat.

Disability: some marine mammals have physical disabilities that affect their survival in the ocean.

Abandonment: on rare occasions, marine mammals abandon their young. Note: be cautious when identifying animals as “abandoned.” When hunting for food, mother seals can leave pups onshore for many hours and may not return if they see someone near the pup.  It is always a good decision to call the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre before you approach an animal or do anything!  You can call 604-258-SEAL to get in touch with one of our trained staff.


Abandonment: on rare occasions, marine mammals abandon their young. Note: be cautious when identifying animals as “abandoned.” When hunting for food, mother seals can leave pups onshore for many hours and may not return if they see someone near the pup.

What steps does the Aquarium take when accepting, caring for, and releasing animals?

The Rescue Team is very careful to only admit animals that are in need of assistance (sick, injured, or legitimately abandoned). This is why it is important to contact the Aquarium before taking any action with a stranded marine mammal. Trained rescue team members will assess the situation and decide if a marine mammal needs rescue or treatment.

Rehabilitation occurs away from the main Aquarium site. This prevents the spread of disease and parasites to Aquarium animals. Staff members and volunteers must undergo a four-hour quarantine, and must shower and change their clothing when traveling between the Rescue Centre and the Aquarium. While animals are at the Rescue Centre, care is taken to not habituate them to humans—they are not “cuddled” nor handled excessively. It is important to keep them “wild” so that their release will be successful.

Before release, animals are assessed by the Rescue Team, including the veterinarian, to determine whether they are clinically healthy and free from disease. Seal pups must also reach a certain size, and have passed “fish trials” to determine whether they can hunt and care for themselves. Rehabilitated seals are flipper tagged with an orange plastic tag so they can be identified when spotted again in the wild. We hope to obtain the resources to enable radio or satellite tagging of some individual animals in the future.

How much does it cost to run the program?

The Aquarium spends over $500,000 per year on marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation. Donations cover some of the costs. Many airlines, ferries or private operators donate space for the transport of rescued marine mammals to the Rescue Centre.

Do’s and Don'ts

Do contact the Aquarium’s Rescue Centre at 604-258-SEAL. 

Do help us to help the animals! Support the Marine Mammal Rescue Program. Donate Now

Do visit the Marine Mammal Rescue Website for further information on the program and the animals admitted.

Don’t try to put a pinniped (seal or sea lion) back into the water if it is on land. Pinnipeds regularly haul out onto beaches or rocky areas to rest, socialize, or bask in the sun. This is completely normal and they should be left alone.

Don’t feed marine mammals in the wild. Seal pups are lactose intolerant, and can become very sick if given milk products. It is in the best interest of the animals to wait until you have spoken with the Aquarium’s rescue specialists.

Don’t approach wild marine mammals too closely; if they are stressed, they can be dangerous as they try to protect themselves. Even small seal pups can bite; this can be a health hazard.

Permission is granted by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre for classroom teachers to make copies for non-commercial use. This permission does not extend to copying for promotional purposes, creating new collective works, or resale.

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