CIMWI - Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute

9.13.13 Gaviota, CA & 9.17.13 Channel Islands, CA

Meet #116. He’s a 13-month-old California sea lion that was rescued on August 24, 2013, by CIMWI (Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute). Weighing only 34 lbs when found, the resilient little guy gained 21 lbs by the time I got to meet him for the first time on September 13.

With their first rescue in June of 2006, CIMWI has (at the time of this story being photographed) rescued and rehabilitated 416 sick and injured sea lions in Ventura County, CA, with 116 of those occurring since January of 2013. Working as part of the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program under the direction of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, CIMWI is the only authorized organization to respond to and rehabilitate pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) and cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises and whales) for Ventura County.

The founders, Dr. Sam Dover and Ruth Dover, are a husband and wife team that dedicates their time and energy to running the program as well as working to maintain funding and continue growing their operation.

With a volunteer base of about 40-50 people located around Santa Barbara County and Ventura County, CIMWI responds immediately to calls regarding injured, stranded or oddly behaving marine mammals. They’ll usually start by putting up signs around the reported animal and observe its behavior before determining if a rescue is needed. It takes anywhere from two to four volunteers to rescue the animal and bring it back to their facilities in Gaviota, CA to begin the rehabilitation process.

At the time of intake, the pickup location, condition, length, weight, sex and age class are recorded to track their progress. Because of their inability to calculate the exact birth date, the standard birthday (calculated from the typical time of birth for a sea lion) is June 15th.

Each animal is assigned a number instead of given a name, which is just one of many ways to ensure that the volunteers don’t get attached to the animals during their time at the facility. When it’s determined that the animal is healthy enough to be released, a date is set and plans are made to send two volunteers with the animal on one of the Island Packers to be released.

I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to follow #116 on his release, so I headed up to Ventura County on the morning of September 17th to document his return to the wild. Island Packers has passenger boats that do daily trips to the Channel Islands. Anyone can buy a ticket to take a day trip or even stay longer and camp, so the boat was packed with people as we loaded up. Ready with a sheet of facts about the particular animal being released, the volunteers selected to go with the sea lion are happy to answer any questions people ask as they spot the animal in the kennel on deck.

After the passengers were dropped off at the island (this particular trip took us to the island of Santa Cruz), the boat headed back out to release #116 offshore and away from the people. Just a few miles off the coast, the boat stopped, a gate was opened and the kennel was moved to the edge before releasing the fuzzy mammal into the ocean. #116 jumped in without hesitation, swimming several yards out before turning around to glance back at the boat. I last saw him happily bobbing up and down in the waves as he leisurely swam away.

[Please note that the photos shown depict the animal being fed by hand. This was a special rare occasion in which they did this for me to get some close up photos of #116 and is not common practice at CIMWI. The animals get very little personal contact with the volunteers in an effort to preserve their wild instincts for their release back to their natural environment.]

I’d like to thank Ruth Dover, who was kind enough to openly accommodate my visit to CIMWI. CIMWI is a phenomenal operation that needs your donations and support. If you’d like to donate or apply to volunteer, you can find more information on their website:

I’d also like to thank Island Packers for allowing me to accompany #116 on his release. If you’re interested in taking a trip to the Channel Islands, you can find more information about the Island Packer trips on their website: