NOVA "Ocean Animal Emergency" on WXXI-TV

NOVA "Ocean Animal Emergency" on WXXI-TV

Tue, 08/03/2010 - 8:00pm

Pictured: A harbor seal pup, named Xilia, sedated and prepared for a CAT scan to determine if she has a brain abnormality.

Credit: Doug Hamilton

San Francisco veterinarian Dr. Frances Gulland is committed to saving sick marine mammals, but she’s also desperately trying to figure out what’s killing them.

Part emergency room, part rehab center, part research lab, the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito is the difference between life and death for sick and injured ocean animals. NOVA takes viewers inside this very special ER to witness the efforts of a renowned team of wildlife veterinarians as they fight to save sick and injured ocean mammals — and uncover the cause of the mysterious neurological illness plaguing animals like California sea lions and harbor seal pups. Not only are these patients bright, appealing and furry, they are also sending us an urgent message about the health of our oceans. In “Ocean Animal Emergency,” NOVA follows one of the most compelling wild animal rescue efforts in the U.S. in a story that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. “Ocean Animal Emergency” encores Tuesday, August 3 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable 11/cable 1011).

Renowned veterinarians Frances Gulland and Felicia Nutter direct medical treatment at the Marine Mammal Center, the foremost research hospital in the world that specializes in marine mammal veterinary care. It was Gulland who first linked the wrenching neurological symptoms afflicting marine mammals with domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by algal blooms. Now, Gulland and Nutter work with a team of passionate volunteers to rescue sick and dying animals languishing on beaches. Some patients are malnourished pups separated from their mothers; others bear deep scars that are the result of being entangled in plastic trash floating in our oceans; all too many are victims of deadly domoic acid poisoning. Veterinarians at the center treat animals using a combination of traditional hands-on care, careful observation and the latest cutting-edge technology. The goal is to rehabilitate each animal and release it back into the wild.

According to Paula Apsell, senior executive producer of NOVA, “Ocean Animal Emergency” is much more than the story of these compassionate caretakers. “This documentary focuses on our changing environment as well as the innovative techniques pioneered at the Marine Mammal Center that are saving aquatic animals around the world.”

NOVA travels to Oahu with Dr. Gulland as she applies practices developed at the Marine Mammal Center to save an endangered Hawaiian monk seal, a species on the brink of extinction. Says producer Doug Hamilton, “With an estimated 1,200 Hawaiian monk seals remaining in the world, the survival of every individual is vital.”

The experts interviewed in the film believe that many of the maladies plaguing marine mammals reflect the declining health of our oceans and the profound effect that humans have on the environment. Hamilton describes the nearly 1,000 animals treated each year at the Marine Mammal Center as “canaries in the coal mine.” He adds, “‘Ocean Animal Emergency’ shows the link between human behavior, the deteriorating health of marine mammals and the destruction of their habitat.”

On Memorial Day weekend, 1998, Dr. Gulland and her colleagues were inundated with desperately ill California sea lions stranded along the coastline. Hundreds died, and others came into the center with wrenching symptoms, including seizures and abnormal behavior. Through a classic case of epidemiological sleuthing, Dr. Gulland identified the culprit as domoic acid, a neurotoxin linked to algal blooms that causes severe brain damage and eventually death.

Dan Costa, a biologist from the University of California, Santa Cruz, is among the researchers featured in “Ocean Animal Emergency.” He studies healthy elephant seals in the wild using satellite tags, which are glued to the elephant seals’ heads like “electronic yarmulkes.” Costa’s satellite tracking has revealed an extraordinary migration that was previously hidden underwater: Some animals have been shown to make a round trip beyond the international dateline, a distance nearly twice the width of the United States. They do it alone every year and most return to the exact same beach. Dr. Nutter marvels at the elephant seals’ annual migration route, “It’s like the Serengeti of the sea, but nobody sees it.”

This program is offered with Descriptive Video (DVi), which provides concise descriptions of the sets, scenery, costumes, action, and other important visual elements between the dialogue of the program.