It’s been called “Morro Bay Seal Penitentiary,” “Seal Guantanamo,” “the worst aquarium in the world,” “torture chamber,” “fish dungeon,” and “the saddest aquarium on Earth.”
In the dimly lit room of the Morro Bay Aquarium, a woman wiped away tears as she passed one of about a dozen tanks.
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- ‘IT IS WHAT IT IS’ : After passing through the gift shop, visitors to the Morro Bay Aquarium can spend $2 to visit a harbor seal, sea lions, and a variety of aquatic creatures floating in tanks that bear disclaimers such as, “This particular eel likes to lay on his side. He has been doing this for months.”
“These animals belong in the ocean,” she muttered.
There wasn’t anything special about this visitor; she just happened to be one of about a dozen people who paid the $2 entrance fee and spent a recent Saturday at the aquarium.
The Morro Bay Aquarium looks like a living anachronism, harkening to a time when aquatic animals could be put on display like circus attractions. You can hear the bellows and barks from the parking lot, or the occasional smacking sound of a sea lion slapping its flipper against its side and begging for sardines flung by gawking tourists. The noise echoes behind the chain-link fence and barbed wire.
Qualifiers seem common at the Morro Bay Aquarium, the type of place where animals are frequently mislabeled and sometimes excused in writing.
“Wolf Eel is not a very active ocean creature,” reads a bright orange sign pasted to the side of one hexagonal tank. “This particular eel likes to lay on his side. He has been doing this for months.”
Many of the non-mammalian animals lay listlessly in their tanks. An eel rested at the bottom of its metal enclosure, staring blankly through the glass.
The entrance to the aquarium is actually a gift shop, fronted by doors smeared with novelty bumper stickers: Glittery gung-ho “America Born Free” stickers are displayed next to others like “Praise God,” “Plan Ahead Repent!,” and “Save A Whale harpoon a fat chick” as well as “Save A Whale harpoon a fat dude.”
Two dollars will grant any visitor access, and another 50 cents purchases a small paper bag of fish parts to feed the animals. Past a swinging porthole door, visitors are greeted by an up-close encounter with three belching and cackling California sea lions and one silent harbor seal. Maggie, the oldest sea lion (she’ll turn 25 this July), is by far the crowd favorite. Smacking a flipper at her side to attract tourists, she spends much of her time splayed out on one of a few wooden platforms that have been bolted to the wall and perched above each of the three shallow pools, none of them any larger than your average backyard Doughboy pool.
Glitzed out in red, white, and blue stars, a sign near Maggie’s favorite wooden plank reads, “Feed the Performing Seals. They’re all Rehabilitated Animals.”
In reality, Maggie is the only rehabilitated animal—she’s a 24-year-old sea lion, picked up as a beached/stranded animal and raised at the aquarium since she was a pup.
The other two sea lions—Nera and Ramses—were born in captivity. In the farthest pool from the entrance, a 4-year-old captive-birth harbor seal, Smokey, swam endlessly in clockwise circles. He looked almost panicked, and occasionally peered up at visitors gathered around his tank with two black, sorrowful eyes.
Signs bordering the enclosure warn visitors not to hang over the rails because seals will snatch their bag of snacks. Another disclaimer warns: “You could be scratched.”
In these close quarters, surrounded by concrete walls, the barking can be almost overwhelming. There’s a stale smell hanging in the air, a combination of ammonia and seawater reminiscent of a fish market or a portable toilet.
One person on the consumer-review website Yelp said this of his experience:
“It only cost $2 to enter but the long-term costs add up. The anti-depressants, therapy bills, and loss of productivity from prolonged bouts of uncontrollable weeping have nearly bankrupted me. I didn’t consider myself a particular above average animal lover but when I looked into those soulful pleading eyes of these seals who were confined to live in what amounted to an extra large bathtub, something broke inside me. I was a tourist in Seal Guantanamo. I had to try and explain to my 4-year-old son why the seals were ‘in jail.’ Trying to protect his faith in the human race, I made up stories about how one seal bit a bunch of body surfers and another mugged a kid for his Popsicle, and that they were really suspected terrorists who hated America. The convicting stare from the eel as we exited through the ‘aquarium’ will haunt me forever.”
Another user wrote: “I had to go check this place out purely based on most of the Yelp reviews. Who doesn’t want to visit ‘The saddest aquarium on earth’ as one yelper put it. … I think one of them was blind or going blind. I threw a piece of fish at him and it hit him in the head. :( poor guy.”
Earlier this year, Madelyne Deloach and her husband Dean drove up from Southern California to spend the weekend with friends in San Luis Obispo. They ended up spending a day walking the foggy streets of Morro Bay and were drawn to the Morro Bay Aquarium by the sounds of seals, Madelyne said.
They left in tears.
“And we walked in the door and the first thing you see, and I couldn’t help it, I just started crying,” Madelyne said. “We walked out so fast.”
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- SMALL CAVEAT : A sign at the Morro Bay Aquarium encourages visitors to “Feed the Performing Seals. They’re all Rehabilitated Animals.” However, only one of the four seals was born outside of captivity.
She quickly posted a review on Yelp: “How is this even legal ????!!!!!”
Dean later wrote a letter to the city of Morro Bay in which he said, “I do know that I won’t be able to go back to Morro Bay as long as the aquarium still operates, and I hope that others don’t get curious and wonder [sic] into that establishment as I did, as I’m sure that they would also likely not return to your town after that experience.”
The couple also sent letters to the ASPCA, PETA, Humane Society International, and San Luis Obispo County Animal Services. Animal Services Director Dr. Eric Anderson responded: “Unfortunately, we’re very familiar with the Morro Bay Aquarium and receive frequent complaints about them. Sadly, each time we’ve sent law enforcement to the facility, all conditions have found to be legal.”
In fact, Animal Services has received six complaints since 2008 (five of which were received in 2011) regarding the conditions of animals. According to records obtained by New Times, the complaints were over “fish with sores on lips” and “dirty aquariums, sick fish, enclosures too small.” However, only one complaint—in which Animal Services gave an “order to comply”—resulted in any enforcement.
According to a representative with PETA, the group has received similar complaints, roughly nine in the past few years.
But if you ask city officials about the aquarium, most will say they hear mostly positive reviews. Chamber of Commerce President Craig Schmidt said kids love the place and “it’s been kind of an institution for Morro Bay.”
Indeed, the Morro Bay Aquarium has occupied a small space on the Embarcadero since 1960. Dean and Bertha Tyler—who are now 92 and 88 years old, respectively—own it, though management of the aquarium has since been transferred to their grandson, John Alcorn.
“Most of the people that compare us, they compare us to new facilities,” Alcorn said. “This place is over 52 years old. … When the aquarium was built, it was still legal to shoot sea lions.”
Bertha said she has no intention to comment. She said she “hates” New Times due to past coverage of the aquarium.
In 1993, New Times wrote that the USDA had given the Tylers a deadline to bring the aquarium into compliance with federal standards or shut down.
“They’d have to deepen the pools, or get rid of some animals,” a USDA representative said at the time.
The aquarium did make the tanks deeper and bigger, Alcorn recently said.
The Tylers were also asked to keep paperwork on their animals. Back then, Bertha told New Times, “These animals, the paperwork doesn’t help them.” She contended that the paperwork only helps create more government jobs.
Dave Sacks, who’s the new USDA spokesman with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, told New Times there was an investigation in 1994, but it “was closed with us issuing a warning letter.”
Mayor Bill Yates called that article a “hit piece” that was “very controversial” in the community.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- THEN AND NOW : Not much has changed since New Times last reported on the Morro Bay Aquarium in 1993.
“It was a heavily negatively slanted article … she didn’t call me, she didn’t call positive people on it,” Yates said. “I don’t think there was a lot of positive said there.”
The writer, Coleen Bondy, said in an e-mail, “I totally stand by the reporting in the piece, and I still wish they would expand/renovate the aquarium, but it was clear after the piece ran that the city of Morro Bay likes that aquarium just the way it is, and so do most of the residents. Without any momentum, a change like that can never happen.”
And Yates thinks there are positives about the Morro Bay Aquarium. Really, he said, he hears more good about the place than bad.
“It is what it is, and I think the majority of people—especially kids—love going there,” Yates said. “And I think it’s a minority that raise the hell. It’s certainly something I don’t hear about.”
He’s right. Out of 24 Yelp reviews, five are gushingly positive.
“This place is great to take the kids if you are in the area!!” a Nipomo resident wrote. “The animals are super friendly and my son had a blast.”
Yet other reviews seem somewhat mixed.
“Not much to do in Morro Bay but visit my favorite seal,” a resident of Long Beach wrote. “She’s awesome and very loud. She spanks herself, screams, claps and poses for a bag of fish. Yes, this place is a dump. But I love it.”
And the reality remains that despite complaints and inspections by government agencies, the Morro Bay Aquarium remains open and legal. It’s withstood the scrutiny of local, state, and federal regulators. If you’ve ever visited the aquarium and thought it wasn’t up to today’s standards, you’d be wrong.
In 2011, a warden with the California Department of Fish and Game inspected the facility based on a citizen complaint that “specimens at the aquarium are in bad shape.” Everything checked out, as far as the regulators were concerned.
But the real problem with the Morro Bay Aquarium isn’t that it doesn’t meet government standards; the problem, to many, is that it does.
A marine mammal expert, who asked not to be named, said there have actually been concerted outside efforts to close down the aquarium in the past, but doing so would require a complete legal overhaul.
“A question was asked of the USDA of the veterinarians that do the inspections there, and they said that the requirements badly need updating,” the expert said. “When I asked what would that take, they told me literally an act of Congress.”
“They know there’s a problem here, but because the standards are generally weak, they claim that they just don’t have any grounds for action,” said Naomi Rose, senior scientist for Humane Society International and a biologist who specializes in marine mammals. “I just don’t think that’s true, and I’ve told them that to their face.”
Rose said she receives the most complaints about the Morro Bay Aquarium—more than any other facility in the country. She’s been with the Humane Society, a nonprofit animal protection group based in Washington, D.C., since 1993. Over the last 19 years, Rose has amassed a stack of letters from people complaining about the Morro Bay Aquarium.
“The letters have always been the same,” she said—namely that the enclosures are too small, that the animals look unhealthy, and that the facility is just generally too old.
To put this in perspective, when asked which facility gets the second most complaints, Rose said, literally, all the rest: “Everybody else is neck and neck.”
Facilities that exhibit marine mammals to the general public are all overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture, specifically the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS. What APHIS does is simple: It enforces the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which Congress first passed in 1966 and amended over the years. Even with those amendments, the AWA hasn’t been altered since 1990, according to the APHIS website. And Rose, as well as other animal rights advocates, thinks the standards, just like the Morro Bay Aquarium, are relics in need of renovation.
“In my opinion, Morro Bay is sort of the example of why APHIS minimum standards are inadequate,” Rose said. “They’re legal, and it’s such a horrible poky little place, then there’s something wrong with the standards.”
But APHIS officials can and have shut down facilities. In 2010, for example, APHIS got a court order forcing the closure and loss of a license at the Branson West Reptile Gardens in Branson, Mo. Though the facility is still closed, its website encourages visitors to instead visit Branson’s Wild World, which boasts attractions like this:
“THE ONLY MO. ANIMAL FACILITY WITH LIVE SHARKS, AND NOT JUST SHARKS BUT BULL SHARKS THE MOST DANGEROUS SHARKS ON THE PLANET AND HERE YOU CAN EVEN FEED THEM OFF A POLE !!”
Morro Bay Aquarium, on the other hand, has never been penalized by APHIS beyond a warning letter. But it has been cited for alleged AWA violations.
According to APHIS inspection reports, the aquarium received 22 “non-compliances” between April 2009 and August 2010. The aquarium received an official warning in January of this year for the following violations:
• “failure to ensure the food for marine mammals is wholesome, palatable, and free from contamination … .”
• “repeated failure to have an employee or attendant who has the necessary knowledge to assure that each marine mammal receives an adequate quantity of to [sic] maintain it in good health feed marine mammals individually.”
• “repeated failure to have holding facilities in place and available to meet the needs for isolation, separation, medical treatment, and medical training of animals.”
• “repeated failure to keep individual animals medical records and have them available for APHIS inspection.”
• “failure to ensure all marine mammals are visually examined by the attending veterinarian at least semiannually and must be physically examined under the supervision of and when determined to be necessary by the attending veterinarian.”
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
According to APHIS inspection reports, the aquarium was also cited for failing to keep daily food consumption records in April 2009, failing to separate new animals from resident animals in April 2010, and for failing to provide enough water for the harbor seal in August 2010. The harbor seal pool was only 19.7 inches deep, but federal regulations require at least three feet of water.
Comparatively, the Charles Paddock Zoo in Atascadero has received one ding from an APHIS inspection since 2007. In August 2010, the zoo was cited for having two fluorescent light bulbs in an area adjacent to a primate den. Indeed, the Charles Paddock Zoo and Santa Barbara Zoological Gardens are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, while the Morro Bay Aquarium isn’t.
Consider also that the Monterey Bay Aquarium has received two non-compliances: one for having a rusty food shelf in 2007, and one for failing to provide someone to accompany an inspector in 2011.
The Morro Bay Aquarium was dinged repeatedly in August 2010, in part, because the attending veterinarian “admitted that he was not physically capable of handling any of the marine mammals at the facility and that he felt that he was not up to date on pinniped medicine.”
That veterinarian, John Truax, is a small animal clinician in Morro Bay, and he’s still the veterinarian for the aquarium, according to his office. Truax declined to comment for this article, citing patient confidentiality.
The aquarium did at one point hire a veterinarian from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito to attend to one of its sea lions, which had a “really bad case of diarrhea.” But the veterinarian has made only one visit, according to a Marine Mammal Center spokesman.
During the last four APHIS inspections, the last of which was March 5 of this year, the aquarium received no write-ups—just the warnings issued earlier this year. It’s been in compliance since the last inspection in 2010.
However, the facility hasn’t undergone any upgrades or building modifications—at least none that would require a city permit. In the 1990s, there were talks with the Tylers to expand the facility into an adjoining property, but nothing happened, according to Harbor Director Eric Endersby.
And the question of the aquarium’s status as a rehabilitation facility is a matter of some disagreement. Aquarium manager Alcorn said the aquarium still has the authority to rehabilitate animals, but “it’s just that there’s so many more new facilities that it’s better for them to go there.” Neither the USDA nor NOAA could verify the aquarium’s status as a licensed rehabilitation center.
Mayor Yates said the facility lost its permission to rescue and rehabilitate stranded animals in the ’90s.
“It offended them and it offended the community, and I think I was mayor at the time … and the community loves the Tylers,” Yates said.
The aquarium hasn’t actually taken on a new rescue animal since 1999, when it received a beached sea lion from the National Marine Fisheries Service.
For that matter, Alcorn was confused about the message the aquarium was delivering to the public about the facility’s rehabilitation status:
“I don’t know, nobody’s brought it up. It doesn’t say they’re all rehabilitated … oh yeah, it does say that.”
According to tax records available for the last three fiscal years, the aquarium maintains a nonprofit status, with an annual income of about $180,000. Despite the questionable status as a rehabilitation center for mammals, the aquarium still files as the Morro Bay Marine Rehabilitation Center. (The roughly 50 fish at the aquarium are salvaged from fish markets, according to a Fish and Game permit.)
Every year since 2008, it has provided the same description on its tax filings: “The aquarium has helped educate and make the general public aware of life in the ocean and the harm caused by man, other sea life, and adverse weather. Funds so generated are used for the rehabilitation of marine life. Due to mild winters during the last few years, funds have accumulated in the savings account for use in future years when storms and other severe conditions cause rehabilitation needs for otters and seals.”
Chunky, a harbor seal born in captivity, died at the Morro Bay Aquarium in 2005 of encephalitis from bacterial sewage. He was 3.
Sally died in 1985 from lung worms. She was 8.
Turkey the sea lion drowned in 2003 after 5 1/2 weeks of life. Julie drowned in 1999 at the age of 16 months. Cajun died under anesthesia, Suzy died of central nervous system dysfunction, and Thunder died of an unknown reason that caused a loss of appetite and diarrhea.
Taffy died in 1988 at the age of 6. His cause of death? “Love sick.”
In fact, according to records kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), of all the harbor seals and California sea lions that died in the Morro Bay Aquarium, only one, Sam, died of old age. He was 32 years old.
In the 2008 and 2009 fiscal years, the aquarium wrote off the loss of Socket and Achilles, respectively, according to tax records.
Out of 40 animals that passed through the Morro Bay Aquarium, 24 died there. That’s 60 percent of the mammals, which technically isn’t an outrageous mortality rate.
In 2011, by comparison, the Marine Mammal Center only re-released 45 percent of the animals it rescued back to the wild—the rest were either unable to be released, died of their injuries, or had to be euthanized. In 2009, the center admitted more than 1,700 animals, but lost 65 percent, according to its annual report for that year.
Dave Koontz, a spokesman for SeaWorld in San Diego, said a California sea lion in captivity can live well into its 30s. Harbor seals in captivity have been known to reach more than 40 years of age. Even in the wild the average lifespan is still about 15 to 20 years for sea lions and 25 years for harbor seals.
But for the animals that have died in the Morro Bay Aquarium, the average life for a sea lion is 9.06 years; for harbor seals, it’s 6.73 years. (This doesn’t include two sea lions missing birth date data.) The oldest sea lion, Sam, lived to be more than 32 years old, while the youngest, Turkey, lived for just more than a month.
Of course, this doesn’t account for animals that may have had existing health problems before they entered the aquarium. And New Times was only able to acquire data on animals that died at the aquarium, while the other seals and sea lions were either transferred to another facility (nine animals), released to the wild (three animals), or were missing data (four animals).
However, five of the harbor seals that have died there were born in captivity. Of those, the average lifespan was 3.93 years. For the three captive birth California sea lions, the average lifespan was 2 years; the oldest, Loyd, died of encephalitis caused by bacterial sewage at the age of 2.
Cajun, for example, was born in captivity and shipped to Morro Bay from SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla., when he was 2 years old. After 7 1/2 months at the Morro Bay Aquarium, he died under anesthesia, according to NOAA records.
A veterinarian with the USDA didn’t return an e-mail when presented with these statistics. Sacks, the USDA spokesman, reaffirmed that the agency’s job is to enforce the guidelines of the Animal Welfare Act. As far as the federal government is concerned, there’s no difference between a state-of-the-art facility and a bare-minimum facility so long as both comply with those guidelines.
“Do we wish we could push a button and make every facility perfect in every way? Sure we’d push that button,” Sacks said. “Would we rather have them all go above and beyond? Of course.”
In fact, APHIS officials have likely never seen the inventory report from Morro Bay; that information is held by NOAA, which doesn’t handle the enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act for facilities that exhibit seals and sea lions to the public. The only way the APHIS officials would see the inventory of animals is if they specifically requested it, which they haven’t, according to a NOAA representative.
Alcorn attributed some of the animal deaths and illnesses to the fact that the aquarium pumps its water from Morro Bay Estuary. When there was a sewage spill from the California Men’s Colony upstream, for example, that bacteria got into the seal pools. And when the aquarium took in an animal from another facility, it had some issues adapting from treated water to seawater from the estuary.
“We do take care of our animals; we do the best we can for them,” Alcorn said. “Not everybody is against the aquarium. … I know there’s a lot of people that have their opinions, and there’s a lot of people that have good opinions.”
Rep. Lois Capps hasn’t received any complaints about the aquarium, according to her office, nor has San Luis Obispo Sen. Sam Blakeslee. Even the Morro Bay city manager hasn’t heard from the public.
But the aquarium’s 50-year lease will expire in 2018. Over the next few years, city officials will have the chance to look at the facility and decide whether it should continue to occupy that space.
Because the aquarium is on the waterfront, it’s a privately owned building atop land leased from the city. Harbor Director Endersby said this will be the first time in the history of the aquarium it will come up for a review. Endersby said the city has the authority to decide whether the aquarium needs improvement, is fine as it is, or whether the space should go to some other tenant. But the aquarium is still an “asset,” he said, “it’s quaint.”
“It is what it is,” he noted.
Here’s the bottom line: The Morro Bay Aquarium has the odd ability to charm some visitors while appalling others. Technically speaking, as far as regulators are concerned, it’s OK. But is it?
“So the facility, which the general public feels bad about, continues to exist,” said Rose from Humane Society International. “… They clearly meet the minimum standards, which just shows you how minimum the minimum standards are.”
And no one is doing anything about it.
News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.