At the Marin Headlands, you don't have to go far to see the kind of cuddly creatures Northern California is famous for. From seals and sea lions, to river otters and even grey whales, this ocean-side piece of National Parks land just north of San Francisco attracts all kinds of marine mammals and the visitors who love them.
But all along the California coast, the sea life people flock to our parks to see is in need of help. And that's where the Marine Mammal Center comes in. Located inside the boundaries of the Marin Headlands, the Center is home to the nation's first purpose-built marine mammal hospital, as well as exhibits, art installations, and educational programs aimed at making the public passionate about conservation. Founded in 1975, today the Center pulls off a delicate balancing act: it's not just a serious place that rescues, rehabilitates, and releases hundreds of animals each year – it's also a fun first stop on any tour of the Marin Headlands.
Just a few minutes' drive (or a scenic, lagoon-view walk) from HI-Marin Headlands, the Marine Mammal Center sits atop a small slope overlooking the lush hills and glittering waves the park is known for. Walk up to the Center's entrance and the first thing you'll notice is a mammoth – or, in fact, simply life-sized – replica of an adult male elephant seal. Even under the best of circumstances (like guided walks during the height of elephant seal breeding season in California's Año Nuevo State Park) it's unlikely that you'd ever get this close to an elephant seal. But this kind of unique, close-up peek into the lives of marine mammals is what the Center is all about.
Wander through the front doorway into the sprawling hilltop complex and the insider view gets even better. The Marine Mammal Center rescues, treats, and re-releases sick, injured, and stranded animals found along a 600-mile-long stretch of California coast reaching as far south as San Luis Obispo. With a small staff and the help of over 1,000 volunteers, the center responds to reports of animals which are stranded due to illness, separation from their mothers, or injury from human interaction. In the almost 40 years since its founding, the Center has given over 17,000 animals a second chance at life. And, thanks to easily accessible viewing areas, docent-led tours, and extensive visiting hours, visitors can get a unique behind-the-scenes look at the Center's rehabilitation and research efforts.
Huge glass windows look into a "fish kitchen" where volunteers prepare meals for flipper-footed patients, a laboratory where scientists study causes of and cures for marine mammal illnesses, and even a "post-mortem" room in which doctors examine causes of death in order to help future patients. In addition, two outdoor viewing decks let you peek in on current patients in their salt-water pools, making it easy to check in and see how well they're recovering. You can even find out what kinds of animals will be at the center during your visit by reviewing the hospital's current patients on the Center's website.
Outside of the viewing areas, there's plenty more to learn. The Center hosts art exhibits like "The Ghost Below," which interprets the danger of fishing nets lost and discarded at sea, in its central courtyard. There are also educational exhibits showing the threats the animals face due to pollution, the fishing industry, and even violence from humans, scattered around the facility.
Beyond just caring for the animals it saves, the Center works to recognize the interdependence we all have with the ocean and its animals; to "expand knowledge about marine mammals – their health and that of their ocean environment – and to inspire their global conservation."
The best way to get inspired yourself is to visit the Marine Mammal Center. Open to the public from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. daily, you can visit the Center free of charge. It's best, though, to spend $9 on a docent-led or self-guided audio tour, both of which give you more background and insight on this one-of-a-kind facility. Best of all, the price of your tour goes to helping the hospital rescue and treat its exceptionally adorable patients.
Before you visit, be sure to check out the Center's schedule of upcoming events, which will give you even deeper understanding of the work the Center is doing and the importance of our oceans. From art exhibits, to special overnight programs, to free marine science lectures and interactive workshops on the second and fourth Sundays of each month, there's always something going on!
Want to get even closer to the many animals that call the San Francisco Bay Area home? We've got you covered with our guides to witnessing the area's raptor and grey whale migrations, spotting species and seeking seals in the Headlands, and hiking our national parks.
Stay at HI-Marin Headlands