Want to Work With Wildlife?
Marine Animal Responder
Marine Animal Responder, Wendy Szaniszlo, has spent many years observing sea lions and disentangling these beautiful marine mammals with the B.C. Marine Mammal Response Network. Want to follow in her footsteps? Keep reading! What does a marine animal responder do?
Wendy Szaniszlo (WS): Marine animal responders are people that respond to a marine animal emergency. This could be anything from disentangling a sea lion or whale from things like fishing gear or carefully capturing and transporting (moving) an abandoned seal to the Vancouver Aquarium’s rehabilitation centre where they’ll get the seal back into good health and will eventually release the animal back in the wild.
We always hope that we can help a live animal, but sometimes we get calls because a marine mammal is found dead. It’s sad for sure, but scientists can still learn so much about the animal. So we’ll take pictures and measure the animal and sometimes take tissue samples too. With just a little extra work we can find out what’s threatening at-risk marine mammals like disease, ship strikes, entanglement and what we can do to make life a little easier for these animals in the future.
We’re called in by regular people! When someone sees an animal in trouble, they will usually call a hotline to get the animal some help. For example, in British Columbia, they’ll be calling the group I volunteer with — the B.C. Marine Mammal Response Network.
You mostly work with sea lions. What is that like?
WS: I’ve been working with sea lions for about 20 years now! When I first started studying sea lions in B.C., there wasn’t much known about where and when they moved around or what they ate in British Columbia — especially during the fall, winter and spring. The more I studied sea lions in the field, the more I became aware of how often sea lions got entangled in marine debris like plastic or swallowed fish hooks. When I’m doing studies, I look for and photograph entangled sea lions so I can better understand the types of marine debris and fishing gear that sea lions become entangled in or ingest (eat). Of course, I always try to help disentangle them too by working with the trained professionals at the Vancouver Aquarium.
What would you love WILD readers to know about sea lions?
WS: Sea lions are incredibly intelligent animals. They can learn very quickly and have extremely long memories. Unfortunately, if they are fed by humans, sea lions learn to associate humans and boats with food and then actively approach boats to get food. This means that sometimes sea lions will go right up to a fishing boat and try to grab the latest catch and sometimes sea lions eat the fish along with the fish hook which isn’t good for them. But they don’t only eat fish that fishermen like to catch, they also eat things like octopus and squid and other fish species too.
What is the craziest experience you’ve had in the field?
WS: Once while sitting alone on a small island where I was observing (looking at) a group of sea lions, a young Steller Sea Lion hopped onto the island near where I was sitting and approached me. I sat quietly and was amazed to have the sea lion slowly come towards me. At one point it was just five metres away from me! We looked at each other for a few moments, and then it went back into the water and slowly swam away, looking at me over its shoulder. I wish I knew what it was thinking!
If one of our readers wanted to become a marine animal responder, what should they study at school?
WS: A strong background in biology is important, especially for taking samples and conducting necropsies on dead marine mammals (an examination to find out why the animal died). It also helps to get some experience working with live marine mammals (I volunteered for marine mammal researchers and at marine mammal rescue centres). You might also consider going to school to become a veterinarian or a veterinarian technician — it’s helpful when you’re working with live animals. And don’t forget to learn how to drive a boat! Sometimes an animal rescue can’t happen without getting to the animal by boat so that’s pretty important too.a
A strong background in biology is important, especially for taking samples and conducting necropsies