Marine Mammal Center reopens after 2-year overhaul

After the longest public closure since its founding, the Marine Mammal Center has opened its doors to visitors again with a new look.

Founded in 1975, the Marin Headlands hospital serves animals over 600 miles of coastline from Mendocino County to San Luis Obispo County. Before the pandemic, the center attracted about 100,000 visitors per year to watch staff feed and care for the seals, otters, sea lions and other animals being treated at its rescue center.

The center closed to the public in March 2020 but did not go idle. In addition to continuing its main mission of protecting and treating marine mammals, the center used the pause in visitation to overhaul the center with new interactive exhibits and renovate its care center.

“When COVID hit and we had to shut down for safety, it really opened up some new opportunities for us so that we could think a little bit bigger, a little bit larger and doing a lot of things at once, as opposed to really small tweaks here and there as we continued to have people on site every day,” said Adam Ratner, the center’s associate director of conservation education.

The center used the remodel to focus more exhibits on the work of the hospital. The new exhibits include a touch-screen map that allows users to access livestream videos of animals being cared for. Another station allows visitors to look into a microscope at seal samples to demonstrate how the rescue staff determines the age of seals they rescue. Another exhibit called the “Fish Kitchen Kiosk” shows how different meals are prepared for different animals.

The center also added art, including photographs of marine mammals from around the world and a sea otter mural painted by a San Francisco artist.

The center will remain free to the public, but there are some notable changes. One is that visitors must reserve a two-hour time slot online before arriving. Visitors must also wear a mask indoors and present proof of at least two coronavirus vaccinations.

Additionally, the center will only be open to the public from Fridays through Mondays from 10 am to 4 pm It was open daily prior to the pandemic.

The center will admit about 70 people at a time to mitigate coronavirus transmission, but the number could change, Ratner said.

Juli Vieira, chief executive officer of the Sausalito Chamber of Commerce, said the Marine Mammal Center helps attract visitors to the city and offers youths a chance to learn about the ocean ecosystem.

“I’m very happy that it is reopening to the public because it has sorely been missed by tourists and locals,” Vieira said. “I even wanted to take my grandkids out there but couldn’t.”

The center is also a popular field trip for Bay Area students during the school year.

“I know schools, students and families will be thrilled it is reopening,” said Mary Jane Burke, the Marin County superintendent of schools. “Students who visit the center have an opportunity for hands-on learning that is priceless and that makes relevant what they are learning in school.”

“Our youth have a deep concern about the environment and the challenges we face,” Burke said. “The Marine Mammal Center gives them hope and inspiration to be part of the change so vitally needed at this time.”

The Marine Mammal Center was last remodeled from 2005 to 2009, when many of its facilities were rebuilt

“I think a lot of people don’t realize the Marine Mammal Center is the world’s largest marine mammal hospital and it’s right here in our backyard in Marin County,” Ratner said. “So a chance to go and see this active hospital is just something you can’t find in a lot of other places around the world.”

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