Performance Architecture: How to Rescue a Seal and Why it Matters

Performance Architects are born with a curiosity gene. We want to know what makes organizations successful and how that success benefits employees, customers, the marketplace, and perhaps the world. As society becomes more complex, we two find our focus increasingly drawn to organizations that make important contributions to the well being of all people and of our planet; what we term Level IV – World/Society.

Our regular readers know that we, as your Resident Performance Architects, like to visit organizations to learn how their work adds value to our world. This month we were privileged to tour the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California.

The Marine Mammal Center – The Mission

Figure 1

Sited on the Pacific Ocean, the Marine Mammal Center is an extensive rescue and research facility with an impressive track record of success.

Established in 1975 for the purpose of rescuing, rehabilitating, and then releasing injured, ill, or abandoned marine mammals, the Marine Mammal Center conducts research and provides education helping everyone learn more about the magnificent, and often endangered mammals in our oceans. Rescue animals include seals, sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, porpoises, and whales.

The Center serves marine mammals along 600 miles of the central and northern California coast from San Luis Obispo through Mendocino. The Center partners with the Monterey Bay Aquarium on a number of initiatives. Notable among them is the promotion of the Sustainable Seafood list that guides consumers in their seafood choices. A second marine mammal center operates in San Luis Obispo, and there is now the Ke Kai Ola Monk Seal Hospital in Hawaii that cares specifically for the endangered monk seal.

Scientific Research

Between 600-800 marine mammals are rescued each year by the Marine Mammal Center. Caring for them and getting them healthy so they can return to the wild offers valuable opportunities for research. Currently, the Center’s researchers are making important contributions to the study of Harbor Seal health on the West Coast of the U.S. with their work on:

Even a deceased marine animal can make a contribution to science when its cadaver is analyzed for cause of death.

The Marine Mammal Center is supported by donations that provide the 10M needed annually for operations. There is no funding from government or other sources. The paid staff of 70 includes scientists and veterinarians. An additional 1400 workers (yes, that is the correct number) are volunteers.

Marine Mammal Rescue

When visitors to the Center take a tour, they learn how distressed animals are rescued. We were impressed with the simplicity of the process:

Typically, a concerned person calls the Center to report a stranded or injured marine mammal on a beach, on a dock, or in the water. After gathering pertinent information from the caller, Center staff and volunteers make arrangements to rescue the animal as quickly as possible.

Beach Rescue

Beach Rescue

As the logistics of a rescue are worked out, a team of up to10 people, including a veterinarian and volunteers, is assembled to go to the distressed animal. “Our rescue teams are volunteers who are specially trained for rescues of seals, sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, and more, in a variety of locations from beaches to docks to rocky shores.” (What We Do – Rescue)

The team disentangles the animal, if needed, and provides first aid as appropriate. Whenever feasible, the animal is returned right away to its habitat. Rescue aids include:

  • A large net – used to immobilize the animal (see above)
  • Shields – carried by rescuers to help herd the animal toward waiting transportation or back to its habitat
  • Carriers – to contain the animal during the trip to the Marine Mammal Center
  • Medical supplies

If the animal is sick, injured, or has been abandoned, the team transports the animal to the Center’s veterinary hospital for treatment and care. Very large animals such as elephant seals are treated at the location where they are found.

Veterinary Hospital

The Center’s veterinary hospital is a fully equipped animal hospital where the medical team assesses the rescued animal’s condition and determines a course of action.

Examining Table

Examining Table

All patients are tagged so that they can be tracked after their release and share important information about their travels and habits with researchers at the Center.

Fish School

Most rescued marine mammals are dehydrated and are given an electrolyte solution to bring their hydration to a normal level. Many are also malnourished as a result of their ordeal.

Very young animals that have been orphaned or abandoned and are still nursing are fed a high fat milk powder mixed with other nutrients that together replace mother’s milk. As they gain weight and their health improves, they are moved to a diet consisting of the fish they will eat, mostly herring, when they are back in the wild and hunting for their meals.

If the animal is too ill or injured to eat on its own, it may be given a special fish shake made of herring and mixed with other nutrients in a blender. Workers feed the animal this shake through a tube that goes directly into the animal’s stomach, ensuring that all the needed food is received. And no, the tube doesn’t hurt the animal as its insides are designed for swallowing fish whole.

As they mature and their teeth come in, marine mammals are ready to begin eating fish. However, these little ones have never experienced hunting for their food and may not even know what a fish is.

“The process begins with “fish school” where volunteers initiate an animal’s interest with easy to “catch” thawed frozen fish. The fish may be dragged through the pool on a string or while being held with forceps. Later the pup [baby] moves on to competing for fish with other animals and eating fish on its own, “free-feeding.” (What We Do – Feeding) What’s on the Menu

To be released back into the wild, young animals must be fully rehabilitated and able to hunt for food on their own. Most animals are released directly into the ocean at the Marine Mammal Center. The exception is sea otter patients that are returned to the site of their rescue. Sea otters are very territorial and do best in their home waters.

Rehabilitation & Release

The Animal Pens

The Animal Pens

Animals in treatment at the Center are housed in special pens where they are fed and monitored as they recover. Most are kept two-of-a-kind to a pen, as marine mammals are social beings.

Great care is taken to keep human contact with the animals at a minimum so that the animals do not imprint on humans and jeopardize their survival in the wild.

A Performance Architect’s Perspective

The Marine Mammal Center is an impressive organization. After just a few hours of visiting and touring the facility, we came away with some lasting impressions.

The staff and volunteers we talked with or observed shared a passion for the mission of the Center. This speaks to strong leadership at the top of the organization and careful, thoughtful leading by example on the part of managers and supervisors throughout the Center.

Roger Addison

Roger Addison

The work we observed in the kitchen, out at the animal pens, in the gift shop, at the reception area was well organized and designed effectively. People were pleased to engage with visitors like us and to share their knowledge in response to visitors’ questions.

Attracting the large number of volunteers needed to keep all its operations running smoothly requires some prudent thought, planning, organizing, and training. These people are definitely doing something right.

We applaud how the stated purpose of saving marine mammals’ lives drives the work of the Center. The many side benefits demonstrate the importance of leveraging information to broaden an organization’s reach and influence. After all, the Marine Mammal Center:

  • Gathers medical and environmental data from every animal patient
  • Conducts research on medical conditions and illnesses that threaten the mammals they rescue
  • Readily publishes findings and shares information with the scientific community
  • Puts a tracking device on each animal returned to the wild to learn more about the animal’s journey and environment
  • Works tirelessly to educate us all about our oceans and the magnificent creatures that call them home

Now it is Your Turn

There are good processes all around us. In our experiences working with a wide range of organizations in many fields and in different countries, we have consistently seen that well-run organizations operate with intelligently conceived and effective processes that produce superior results. We want to make it our business to recognize good processes when we see them and let the organizations know that their efforts are paying off.

So, think about good processes that you have used, observed or experienced. How many can you name and describe? Make a list.

Then, select one process from your list and determine:

  • Which organization developed the process?
  • What the process is used for
  • Who benefits from it
  • What you can learn from seeing this process in action
  • What you can tell the leadership in your company about this process that would be useful to your organization’s goals


The Marine Mammal Center’s mission is to rescue marine mammals that are injured, ill, abandoned or orphaned, rehabilitate them, and return them to the wild.

In the course of this work, opportunities to conduct scientific research, share findings about marine mammal diseases and other threats, and study the ocean enable the Center to leverage its primary work to benefit society at the world level.

See how a marine mammal is rescued and transported.


A day in the life of the Marine Mammal Center.

Addison, R., Haig, C., Kearny, L. (2009). Performance architecture: The art and science of improving organizations. San Francisco, CA. Pfeiffer.

What we do: rehabilitation, release, feeding.

What we do – rescue.

What’s on the menu?

Roger Addison & Carol Haig

Roger Addison & Carol Haig

Roger Addison has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Baylor and is Certified in Performance Improvement Technologies (CPT). He is the co-author of Performance Architecture and an internationally respected performance improvement consultant. He is the founder and Chief Performance Officer of Addison Consulting. Previously he was the Senior Director of Human Performance Improvement for the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) where he was responsible for educational programs and implementing performance improvement systems. Carol Haig is a Certified Performance Technologist (CPT) and has more than 30 years of multi-industry experience partnering with organizations to improve their employees' performance. Carol is known for her superior skills in project management, analysis and problem/opportunity identification, and instructional design and facilitation. She has consulted with executives and line managers, established and managed training departments, trained trainers, written for professional publications and mentored performance consultants. She is co-author of Performance Architecture.

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