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The science of ocean rescue and rehab (photos)

In a decommissioned Nike missile site just outside San Francisco, the Marine Mammal Center conducts research, treats animals, and dispenses biological info.

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10,000th California sea lion

SAUSALITO, Calif.--The Marine Mammal Center, a unique environmental organization that watches over marine mammals for more than 600 miles of California's coastline, has a legacy of protecting sea life going back to 1975. CNET got an insider's tour of the center this week, which sits just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and happens to be housed in a decommissioned Nike missile site.

This marine rehabilitation hospital has rescued and treated more than 16,000 elephant seals, sea lions, whales, sea otters, harbor seals, fur seals, dolphins, and harbor porpoises.

Recently, the center celebrated a milestone in its 36-year history by rescuing its 10,000th California sea lion, seen here, aptly named Milestone.
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The facility essentially serves as a sea mammal hospital. With a small staff of about 40 employees and a team of more than 800 volunteers assisting in its operations, the center conducts research, treats animals, and has become a key purveyor of biologic information and marine education.

Because the facility manages the health of sea animals, it requires an advanced filtration system that keeps water sources separate and well cleaned.

Instead of pumping in natural sea water, which is alive with all kinds of organisms, some of which could be damaging to the health of the center's patients, the Marine Mammal Center makes their own salt water solution. This large tank on the left is filled with rock salt, which makes a medically optimal salt water solution of about 30 parts per thousand, versus the naturally occurring 32 PPT of ocean water.
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Inside the ozone generator

The blueish "hot spark" coronal discharge, which generates the ozone used to purify the reused water at the Marine Mammal Center, is seen here as I peer into the chamber with my camera.
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Transformation of missile site

One unique element of the Marine Mammal Center is its home. The center is housed at a former Nike missile site that defended the San Francisco Bay Area during World War II (designated SF-87L). The organization reused the foundation and underground infrastructure when the base closed, allowing the facility to have a more advanced and protected water management system.

Eighty percent of the salt water created on site is reused, and an ozone treatment facility, seen here, helps to keep the reused water clean and pure.
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Facility management

The delicate water system is managed through an Internet platform that sends text messages with alerts and warnings to the management team when the pumping system changes and falls outside of the ideal range.

The high-tech facility also allows the rescue teams to fill and prep holding tanks remotely in advance of incoming patients, giving the center time to adequately prepare for the rescued animals during the critical first minutes of treatment.
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Climbing down into the missile silo

Climbing down into the former missile facility, which was protected by massive 7-ton steel doors.
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Below ground filtration

Water being filtered and circulated through the facility has been built into the former missile silos, giving the complex water system a compact and protected housing.
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Facility Manager Joel Skaggs

Facility Manager Joel Skaggs opens up the first step in the incoming water filtration process, where the largest foreign objects are filtered out.
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Cleansing foam

Proteins are removes from the water in these bubbly towers, which mimic naturally occurring ocean sprays, lifting organic elements and proteins up and out of the water.
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Huge sand and gravel filters

One of the final steps in the recycled salt water filtration process is this set of massive tanks, which are filled with sand and gravel and which filter out the finest particles. The Marine Mammal Center's water recycling process is essentially like a huge fish tank, but it is held to much higher standards suitable for medical use.
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Remnants of military history

Remnants of the site's military history are still visible. Down twisted corridors and through several massive steel doors is the safe room that was the last haven for the Nike missile staff in the event of an attack. Paint and electrical systems, along with air ducts and signage, are still visible.
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Individual holding pens

Individual holding pools allow the staff to prevent contamination of the animals, which are sometimes infected with unknown ailments and viruses that could potentially endanger other patients, most of which are already weak from other injuries.
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Elephant seal relaxes poolside

An elephant seal relaxes poolside in their state-of-the-art treatment facilities at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif.
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Hands-on education

Part of the Marine Mammal Center's mission is education. More than 30,000 students and adults participate in the ocean conservation programs here each year. Visitors to the center have the ability to watch nearly every step of the rehabilitation process.

Here, at an exhibit outside the Fish Kitchen, we see a recipe for one of the center's delicious "fish shakes." The staff specially prepares meals for the animals' specific medical needs according to their age, body condition, and species.
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Elephant seals at Marine Mammal Center

Animals are rescued and brought to the center for a variety of reasons, including malnourishment, separation, entanglements, human interactions, and diseases.
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Green building

With a mission to raise environmental awareness and promote the healthy stewardship of the oceans, the Marine Mammal Center took a green approach to building when they constructed their new state-of-the-art facilities in 2009. These noise dampening ceiling tiles, used throughout the labs, are made of seaweed.
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As part of their research and education mission, an autopsy is performed on every animal that dies at the facility. Unlike other marine rescue labs, the Marine Mammal Research Center has these necropsies open to the public for viewing. Here we see the view from the public viewing area where visitors can observe the process.
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A technician examines blood

A technician examines blood in the lab at the marine research facility.
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Years of research

The necropsies provide the center with massive amounts of information on marine mammal diseases and physical conditions, and the Marine Mammal Center has become a primary source for information of the health of the oceans and environmental effects on the animals over time.

These freezers, cooled to -80 degrees Celsius, keep samples of hair, brain, blood, lungs, muscles, kidneys, and livers available to research institutions for study.
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Sea lion ribs

A bucket of California sea lion ribs sits in the archives of the Marine Mammal Center, underground in building 2 of the former Nike missile launch site.
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Main meeting room

Each day, the staff goes over information on each patient. The day-to-day monitoring of animals' conditions is largely done by the volunteers, while the medical staff makes workflow decisions and assigns treatments.

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