Eco-Warriors Making Waves

15 Minutes with Amber Becerra of Marine Mammal Care Center

When Amber Becerra joined the board of Marine Mammal Care Center Los Angeles (MMCC LA) last November, little did she know that her ten hour volunteer week would soon turn into her taking on the dual positions as President and acting Executive Director.

Tasked with pulling the organization out of a financial crisis, Amber and her team of volunteers set a goal of raising $1 million in six months. Within that time, the organization went from the brink of shutting its doors to raising roughly $1.4 million. “We had several different, big donors that stepped up. But honestly the majority of the funds were raised just through a swell of community support,” Amber said.

Marine Mammal Care Center LA is a nonprofit responsible for helping to rehabilitate our incredible marine life so that they can once again return to the ocean where they belong. Located in San Pedro, California, MMCC LA is one of the busiest rehabilitation centers in the country, admitting an average of 350 patients every year. Kind Traveler is so proud to call MMCC LA a participating charity and empower travelers to make a positive impact when booking Kind Hotels.

Through the Kind Traveler Give + Get model, travelers unlock exclusive rates and perks from curated Kind Hotels when they give a $10 donation to MMCC LA, or a charity of choice. For travelers desiring to make a local impact, Terranea, a Kind Traveler partner, encourages donations in exchange for exclusive rates and perks. With more than 14 acres of wildlife habitat surrounding the resort, approximately 10 minutes from MMCC LA, Terranea has its own sustainability director and green team, and invites guests to engage in stewardship activities in a variety of ways. From docent-led tours along the resort’s extensive hiking and bird-watching paths, a Kelp Forest Cleanup Kayak Tour, and annual World Oceans Day events, Terranea is committed to inspiring environmental stewardship.

We had the chance to sit down with Amber for a Q&A and learn more about the incredible work of MMCC LA as well as meet some of its magnificent marine mammal patients.

MMCC LA’s primary goal as detailed in your website is to increase public awareness on various environmental issues. What do you see as the one environmental issue you wish more people knew more about? 

One of the biggest issues being talked about a lot right now, and I’m finding out people don’t have a ton of knowledge on is actually ocean trash and plastics in our ocean. The consumption and creation of single use plastics is a huge problem. Then there is other ocean pollution.

Fishing lines and nets are a big problem for us specifically. We see those animals actually coming into the center with injuries. Ocean pollution, in particular, is a growing problem and it’s something that I don’t think people are aware of. Actually, people think that you buy these single-use plastics and you put them into the recycle bin and it’s okay, this is an eco-friendly practice, but actually, only 9% of what you’re recycling actually ever gets recycled.

What is the most challenging obstacle MMCC LA has had to face amidst the pandemic?

The most difficult obstacle that’s presented with the pandemic is not really having anyone specifically tell you what you should be doing. You just have to exercise your best judgment in the face of a lot of unknowns and especially for us, because we do rely on public support, it would be so much easier for us to just keep going like nothing was happening. It’s hard to see the revenues taking a huge hit and we’re making a lot of sacrifices. Our staff is working a lot more and a lot harder than they ever have before. But at the end of the day, safety of our staff, our volunteers, the public, and of course our animals are the most important thing to us. That’s been our guiding principle.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?

The best moment obviously is when we have a rehabilitated animal down on the beach and we open up those doors and it just goes flopping down, back into the ocean and knows exactly where it’s going and where home is. We’ve successfully taken an animal that would have suffered greatly and probably died on the beach in a lot of pain and given it a second chance at life. That is probably the most rewarding moment and feeling that you can have.

Beyond that, for me personally, my vision is bigger than just one animal or the 350 animals we see annually. It’s really making a difference in the world and having an impact on people’s understanding of ocean conservation and what they can do, how they can be an advocate, and educating people and giving others an opportunity to come into our facility and get involved so that they can truly go out there and be eco warriors themselves.

In your overall estimation, how are the animals faring during the pandemic? Has anything surprised you about their resiliency? 

We aren’t exactly sure why, but luckily during the pandemic we’ve seen a decrease in the number of intakes. We’ve had far less patients than we would historically and it’s hard to know what really could be causing that. I would just be guessing if I said it was pandemic related. The beginning of our busy season was the same time that everything was shut down, including the beaches in LA County so there is a possibility that because there were less people on the beaches, maybe these animals were able to get out of the water and actually rest and recover on their own without any human interference.

What preconceived notions have you noticed people have about your animals? What about them would surprise most people?

There’s a lot that people don’t really know about marine animals. Particularly, we see a lot of sea lions and seals. Each species has its own personalities. The sea lions for example, are extremely social. We call them ocean puppies because they just basically act like little puppies. They rough house like puppies. They play together. They snuggle. They’re very social with each other and they’re comfortable more so around humans than the seals are, seals are a bit more reserved. I think they’re the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. They’re just very chunky and very zenned-out, just chilling, floating in the water.

People look at both seals and sea lions on the beach and some try to approach them or even think that they are the kind of thing you could pick up. Sadly, it does happen. I would definitely explain to people that these are wild animals. They do look super cute, but it’s really important to respect them in their wild habitat.

Can you take us through the process of what happens when an animal arrives at MMCC LA?

We don’t rescue the animals ourselves off the beaches. There’s an organization called Marine Animal Rescue that does that. If people do see an animal on the beach that’s in distress, they can tell the lifeguard, call this organization or dial 1839-WHALE. They will come out, assess the animal, determine if it needs to be brought in and then they will actually rescue the animal and bring it to us. When it comes in here, it will get an evaluation with Dr. Palmer. We’ll do blood work if it’s necessary, which oftentimes it is. They can’t talk and tell us what’s going on with them so it’s hard to figure out sometimes. Dr. Palmer’s been doing this for over 15 years now so when patients come in she usually has a pretty good idea of what they’re suffering from.

A lot of times when they come to us, they’re super sick. They don’t have an appetite or they’re not capable of eating at that point. Then they go through the rehabilitation process, which is seriously case by case. The animal gets a treatment plan. Dr. Palmer determines how much food it needs in order to reach certain weight milestones. There is a chart that tracks their progress. Once they start eating better, they get moved from pen to pen to pen into until finally they reach our rehabbed pen. Now it’s time for them to compete for food and socialize with other animals. Then she assesses them at this point to see if they’re ready for release.

With Covid, I know volunteer opportunities are currently on hold, but what can people do from home to help MMCC?

We have two veterinarians that are volunteering for us just to try to keep our internal facility basically in lockdown for safety purposes, but we definitely do have roles for volunteers. We are actively always looking for fundraising volunteers. Helping with the virtual events that we host, setting up auctions, or sending letters are good ways to get involved. Following us on social media is also super important. Our handle is @Marinemammalcare on Instagram and Facebook. Additionally, we’re on Amazon Smile. It’s a great way to support us, especially because everyone is ordering so much from home right now.

People often do birthday fundraisers for us on Facebook. Basically, it’s your birthday and you create a fundraiser and say, Hey, instead of getting me presents, in honor of my birthday, they can support MMCC. We just had a birthday fundraiser that raised around $2,000. People raise a lot of money that way. We have a wait list for people that want to actually get some hands-on experience. Maybe they’re studying Marine biology and want to learn more about our animals with some direct experience with a really cool program. We are one of the only places around here you can really get that kind of hands-on experience.

What can travelers do to travel kindly and support your cause?

Kind Traveler is an awesome resource for being able to travel sustainably. I was talking previously about putting your money into sustainable businesses and this is one really great way of doing that. Kind Traveler’s already weeded out the best of the best. Choosing to visit places that are helping causes like ours is great. It’s important to make sure that you’re supporting companies that have corporate sustainability and are giving back as a big part of their mission is really critical right now. It aligns with what I’m saying about people thinking more critically about what their values are and making choices based on that value system.

What is giving you hope right now?

People seem to be activated and engaged. Even though things are super challenging right now and people are nervous and scared and don’t know what the future holds. I think that the flip side of that is that it’s, it really has caused people to become more actively involved in what the future holds. Whether that’s paying closer attention to politics or getting involved with different causes. Being open to receiving information about what it is that’s really going on, that’s been elevated really significantly during these times. I’m hopeful that the end result of that is that it will continue. People will be inspired to really make a change and make a difference and take action because it gets really easy for us to just get in that rat race, just doing the day to day our jobs and families and taking care of business and it’s not often that we’re forced to step outside of our comfort zone and look around us at what’s going on in the world.

This catastrophe we’ve all been living through, it really does make you stop. It makes you question what your core values are. It makes you question what other people’s values are and you want to align yourself with people that are on the same mission as you. People that maybe otherwise, we’re just kind of going through the motions of life before are now being inspired and activated to make a big difference and to see what they can do to affect change. I think that that will in the long run actually be a positive thing for our planet.

Learn more about the incredible work of Marine Mammal Care Center Los Angeles on their website. Don’t forget to choose MMCC-LA as your local beneficiary in making a positive impact when you Give + Get with Kind Traveler. 

Written by Kate Eplboim for Kind Traveler and Terranea Resort. Kate Eplboim is a travel writer and graduate of UCLA who passionately studied Literature and the Environment. Over the last four years, she has cultivated her passion for travel, environmental journalism, and gardening. She is a native of Los Angeles. Follow on twitter @late_eplboim

ABOUT: Terranea Resort is a proud Kind Traveler ‘Kind Hotel.’

A 2020 Travel + Leisure Global Vision Award winner, Kind Traveler is the world’s first and only socially conscious Give + Get hotel booking and media platform that empowers travelers to positively impact the communities they visit.

Give + Get with Terranea Resort: Travelers give a $10 nightly donation to locally vetted Marine Mammal Care Center LA (MMCLA), or a favorite charity of choice on Kind Traveler, and in return, receive exclusive rates and perks to book directly with Terranea Resort. 100% of donations go to charity. A $10 donation to MMCLA will provide one marine mammal patient food for one day. Travelers will learn additional ways to get involved with MMCLA in the ‘Do Good For The Day’ section of the charity profile on Kind Traveler.