In May 2017, I visited the Morro Bay area for a long weekend to get away from the heat and dust of our home in the Los Angeles National Forrest and to provide our three dogs with some quality beach time.
We enjoyed our walks past Morro Rock and over the beaches of Morro Strand and North Point; we got shat upon at the heron and cormorant rookery and wandered along the raised walkways of the Morro Bay National Estuary and the paths created by the Audubon Society in the small Sweet Springs Nature Preserve.
We were grateful to see the southern sea otters – that only barely escaped eradication – raft close to the shore; watched bemused how the alert but fearless Californian ground squirrels darted in and out of hiding places between the rocks; a decent-sized gopher snake crossed our path and we saw, heard and smelled the basking Californian sea lions hauled out on a floating dock out in the bay and on the rocks under the boardwalks.
For cold beers and a sunset view after long, satisfying outdoors days, we would visit the line of restaurants along the Embarcadero, the downtown ‘boulevard’ of Morro Bay village.
Crossing a parking lot, I suddenly heard the bark of a sea lion much closer than those coming from the colony a couple of hundred meters out in the bay. Guided by an occasional splash of water, a flipper slap against a wall and the occasional bellow that, I later learned, was one of the sea lions’ conditioned ways to beg for dead fish from tourists, I ended up standing in front of the rusty-brown wooden side of a building labeled ‘Morro Bay Aquarium’. The two-meter high plank barrier was topped by chain-link fence. The signs, besides a ‘danger – do not climb’ one – indicated that behind that wall one or more Californian sea lions were trapped. I raised my girlfriend’s iphone high enough to grab some pictures through the chain-link. What I saw on them were three small partitioned cages, reminiscent of the old-style zoo bear pits, but less deep, with peeling mint-green paint and growing algae. Behind the chest high fence there were gawking, smiling tourists …
I had never heard of the institution although I later learned that activists and organizations like PETA, HSUS and ALDF, had protested the place since the 1990s. I decided to look up the facility as soon as I was back in the hotel and possibly investigate it the next day before driving back to LA.
I found out through several online publications that Dean Tyler opened the Morro Bay Aquarium on 595 Embarcadero in 1960 and, according to ‘The Tribune’, populated it with sea lions, otters and other marine animals he either rescued or captured himself. He ran the business for over five decades with his wife, Bertha, who, in her own words, “married into the aquarium” a couple of years later. At the time, the couple had no formal training or certification with marine wildlife, nor was any required.
Their grandson, John Alcorn, took over the operation of the aquarium a couple of years ago when the Tylers semi-retired.
Tickets cost $3; children under 12 are free. In addition, it costs 50 cents to buy some dead fish to feed to the seals. About 200,000 visitors a year are still drawn to this ‘attraction’ that is substandard to say the least.
The property is owned by the city of Morro Bay, whose officials have always defended the Tyler family and thereby perpetuated the suffering of the animals locked inside.
The Aquarium’s lease on the property expires in September 2018, but in their renewal request, the Tyler family didn’t propose any renovations.
Still the town brass put their trust in them. Eric Endersby, director of the Morro Bay Harbor Department: “I hope to see the Tylers come up with something. I think that the aquarium is a unique attraction, and we’d love to see it move into the future.”
In May 2013, he told The Tribune: “While its current configuration may be argued in terms of appropriateness in this day and age, it cannot be denied that the Tylers have dedicated their lives to the community and to operating a popular and important center of marine education, display and animal rehabilitation over the years.”
According to another local paper, New Times, the city officials claim 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.””
They quoted Mayor Bill Yates as saying: “It is what it is, and I think the majority of people—especially kids—love going there. And I think it’s a minority that raise the hell. It’s certainly something I don’t hear about.”
Even more surprising is that the local community endorses the animal abuse as well. According to The Tribune, at a May 2, 2013, Harbor Advisory Board hearing on the lease renewal, there was more support for renewing the aquarium’s lease than there were critics. Most attending the meeting called the aquarium a beloved institution and praised the owners for decades of hard work educating the public about marine life.
The entrance to the aquarium is through a tacky gift shop with the kind of trinkets you never knew you didn’t need. For 50 cents you can purchase a small paper bag of fish parts to feed the seal and sea lions that will be begging for it after you pass through the swinging, porthole door that separates the shop from the aquarium area.
The facility at the time of my visit housed three marine mammals, two captive born Californian sea lions – Nera and Ramses – and a captive-born harbor seal named Smokey, supposedly all purchased from SeaWorld.
They lived there in tiny compartments within clear hearing distance from wild & free Californian sea lions who were basking in the sun on ‘their’ floating dock in between wild-caught meals, just a couple of hundred meters from the aquarium out in the bay.
While the sea lions swam endless circles in their five by three meter pen, Smokey just watched me motionless with his big, black, sad eyes.
This lonely seal lay in half a meter of water in another 5 by 3 meter pen that was at least reasonably clean compared to that of the Californian sea lions.
According to the USDA the water in a pinniped pool “should be at least 3 feet or one-half the average adult length of the longest species of pinniped contained therein, whichever is greater.” For a harbor seal it should thus be a minimum of 3 feet.
Facilities that exhibit marine mammals to the general public are all overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), through the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). APHIS enforces the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), passed by Congress in 1966 and last amended in 1990.
According to APHIS inspection reports, the Morro Bay Aquarium received 22 non-compliances between April 2009 and August 2010 alone. It received official warnings for violations such as:
“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.”
According to APHIS inspection reports, the aquarium was also cited for failing to keep daily food consumption records in April 2009 and for failing to separate new animals from resident animals in April 2010.
An August 2010 USDA inspection report states that the seal pool at that time was only 19.7 inches deep. Further there was no separate holding place for isolation, separation and medical treatment for the sea lions. The report states that “[t]he inability to separate marine mammals may endanger their health and well-being.”
Another complaint was that individual medical records did not include physical examination information. Animals had not been measured or weighed and no diagnostic test had been performed on a Californian sea lion with a history of diarrhea.
On July 24, 2013, Morro Bay Aquarium was cited for dry resting areas that were in disrepair.
The last citations on USDA inspection reports for the aquarium were in June and August 2015 and noted that the aquarium did not have an attending veterinarian on staff.
The inspection report from June 10, 2015, also reported that in December 2014, a California sea lion at the facility died from severe chronic pneumonia. The report, prepared by USDA Veterinary Medical Officer Marcy E. Rosendale, said, “[t]here is no record that a veterinarian observed the animal during the 11 days he was sick. No physical examination or diagnostic tests were ever performed to determine a cause for the illness or provide appropriate treatment.”
In May 2017, my general impression was that things had not changed much, if at all.
The aquarium functions as a non-profit organization and files its taxes as the Morro Bay Marine Rehabilitation Center. 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.”
The signs on the walls used to read: “Feed the Performing Seals. They’re all Rehabilitated Animals.”
The aquarium has, however, lacked a legal authorization to rehabilitate animals since the National Marine Fisheries Service revoked that right in 1995.
According to the aquarium’s Marine Mammal Inventory Report, the last California sea lion that was rescued from the wild was Maggie, brought to the aquarium as a stranded pup in 1987. She might be the one that died neglected in December 2014, as indicated above.
The remaining two sea lions were bought from SeaWorld Florida, which shines a light on the kind of facilities SeaWorld is willing to deal with to dump their surplus animals.
The fish at the aquarium are salvaged from fish markets, according to a Fish and Game permit.
In 2014, after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), the operators of the Morro Bay Aquarium finally removed signage that led visitors to believe seals and sea lions housed there are rehabilitated animals.
Today the proprietors have a sign in the window that says: “Our mammals were born in captivity, & to release them into the wild would irresponsibly be putting them in danger.”
Recently, the ALDF filed two complaints with the California Office of the Attorney General and the Internal Revenue Service alleging the aquarium is in violation of its 510(c)(3) tax-exempt status. Citing previous citations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, lack of proper veterinary care, and what the ALDF claims is a questionable education function, the group asked for an investigation into the aquarium’s charitable purpose in both complaints.
Maggie was not the first to die at the Morro Bay Aquarium. The New Times reported that 24 of the 40 marine mammals referred to in federal inventory records died at the facility and that while sea lions can live to an average age of 15 to 20 years and seals can live up to 25 years, the available data showed that sea lions in the Morro Bay Aquarium had an average lifespan of 9.06 years and harbor seals had an average lifespan of 6.73 years. This does not include two sea lions with missing birth date data.
The New Times listed the following death toll:
-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 lungworms. She was 8.
-Turkey, a sea lion, drowned in 2003 after 5 1/2 weeks of life.
-Julie drowned in 1999 at the age of 16 months.
-Cajun was born in captivity and shipped to Morro Bay from SeaWorld Orlando when he was 2 years old. After 7 1/2 months at the Morro Bay Aquarium, he died under anesthesia, according to NOAA records.
-Suzy died of central nervous system dysfunction.
-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.”
-Sam was the only Morro Bay Aquarium marine mammal that 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.
-Loyd, died of encephalitis caused by bacterial sewage at the age of 2.
The Morro Bay Aquarium has 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 online comments.
Yelp and Tripadvisor reviews that otherwise often rave about dolphin prisons of the SeaWorld kind are generally ‘one star’ condemnations when assessing Morro Bay Aquarium.
On Yelp Katie D. from Los Angeles writes:
“IN HUMANE! This is the saddest place to go. Seriously. Seriously. Seriously.
Sure – you get to feed them … and the staff will tell you that this is their way of ‘begging for food’ …. but to me – it was cries of torture.
To go here is torture. I hope they just set the sea lions free.
You could probably set up a place where people feed them – and let roam about the ocean at free will.
Keeping them in these tiny cages just destroys me.
I am so sorry to see that this still happens in the great state of California.”
Emma H. from South Redondo on the same website:
“This was the saddest aquarium I have ever been to in my life. My friend and I practically ran out once we realized how depressing it is.
These are dark, depressing tanks with a tiny window and just one or two solitary fish inside. I’ve also spent a lot of time working around sea lions, but I have NEVER heard a wild sea lion making the noises that these poor animals were making.
SO THANKFUL TO SEE THE SIGN THAT SAYS IT IS CLOSING. DO NOT GO HERE. DO NOT GIVE THEM THE $3. YOU WILL BE SCARRED FOR LIFE.”
Taylor I. from Huntington Beach:
“Do not take your kids here!
The most disturbing place I’ve ever been to…I felt like I was in American Horror Story. Would rate 0 stars if possible.
Free the seals :-(“
Penny L. from Bakersfield:
“This is the place I would give -4839383 stars to. These poor animals are so atrociously treated and abused that it makes me sick. Even when I was brought here as a child almost twenty years ago, I knew this wasn’t right. Animals in the “aquarium” are unable to move, their water is more polluted than the pacific (which is saying something). In fact, I would consider these tanks to be replications of a dead zone. It’s awful. The poor seals are boxed in cement enclosures with less than two feet of water and are never released.
This place is not a rescue. This is an animal torture facility. Shut it down immediately. It’s a stain on Morro Bay, yes. But it’s also an example of the worst parts of humanity.”
Burnt A. from Santa Maria:
“The most depressing “aquarium” I’ve ever seen. Seals look distressed and only have about 3ft of water to swim in. The fish barely move, I think they might be sick. All tanks were completely filthy and have little to no decor in them. And by decor I mean a pvc pipe for the eels and maybe a cinder block for the fish. Only lighting coming in is from an open door at the entrance. Very eerie place. Felt like something out of American Horror Story. I wouldn’t recommend wasting $3 to see this place, very upsetting. PETA WHERE ARE U”
Julia G. from Santa Barbara:
“This was probably the most depressing aquarium I’ve ever been too. I’m surprised the Humane Society and the other Animal Services people haven’t shut that place down. The sea lions have a small, dingy exhibit. There is nowhere near enough space for them. The fish have equally small, dingy tanks that are dirty and gross and look like they’re from the 50’s. It literally looks like these people just took a bunch of animals out of the ocean and stuck them in the aquarium. It was obvious that there was nothing physically wrong with the sea lions, so the aquarium people weren’t keeping them for rehabilitation. One of the seals kept to himself at the bottom of the tank towards the corner because he was scared. Really, these animals need to be freed or something.“
Clarissa H. from San Bernadino:
“I do not understand why the government hasn’t intervened and moved these poor animals to safer, more enriching means of living.“
On Tripadvisor it is no different. E F from San Diego writes:
“This so called aquarium is heart breaking. I cannot believe PETA spends its time chasing SeaWorld instead of helping to close down this sad establishment. There are 3 seals confined to very small enclosures approximately 10′ x 10′ and only a few feet deep. Inside the aquariums are small and large sea creatures are crammed into the tanks with little room to move. We didn’t finish walking through because it was so upsetting. “
Janet E. from Crestline:
“This is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. It’s old, small, grundgey and dismal. The 3 seals have very small, cramped enclosures and the fish in the barren, unadorned aquariums look positively depressed. I hope the SPCA is aware of this place.”
Kayjoyce from Oakland:
“This was like a terrible nightmare or horror movie.
The seals are in such a small space that I find it hard to believe it is legal.
They clearly are depressed and agitated. I wanted to cry.
Then you go inside to the fish and the tanks look like a torture chamber. Bleak, metal and dark in there. Too small for the fish and they were either huddled in pairs motionless on the bottom or just motionless waiting to die. I never thought you could see despair in fish but this place should be shut down. I don’t normally write reviews but I had nightmares last night (so did my son) and it actually spoiled my last couple of days thinking about it. I am making calls to animal cruelty organizations.”
Orca1111 from Northern Virginia:
“This place should be forced to release their animals. If Baltimore aquarium can release their captive raised dolphins then this place can release its marine animals as well.
It is just so sad to hear the cries from these animals.
I would never ever go in there. Just hearing the cries when you walk by is so sad.“
lizasalazar from California:
“This was an awful place. It was dirty, small, dark, and crammed. My husband had to walk out because he could no stand the smell. Do not go here.”
Leerick56 from Palm Springs:
“I cannot believe in this day and age this kind of animal torture is allowed. I like other guests welled up in tears. Three beautiful sea creatures captured in tiny cages begging for the food you can feed them for 50 cents.
I urge people not to visit here. It spoilt my whole trip.
SAD SAD SAD”
Mom_with_Teena from Flagstaff:
“This is a horrid little tiny prison for beautiful animals who do not deserve to be treated this way. Avoid! Surprised some agency doesn’t shut this place down. Disgusting.“
“I almost left in tears. There are 3 sea lions in this aquarium with hardly enough room to swim! Their enclosure is tiny with almost no natural light, it felt like a cell. We spoke to the workers and were told that is where the live 24/7! Such a horrible thing to see especially when you can walk outside and see wild sea lions swimming freely. The room housing the sea life wasn’t much better, all the tanks were dirty and poorly maintained.“
The general feeling, besides disgust, is clearly that people can’t believe that holding these animals in these circumstances is legal.
The reality is that despite complaints and inspections, warnings and citations for violations by government agencies, Morro Bay Aquarium has never been penalized by APHIS beyond a warning letter and remains open and legal.
The truly disturbing issue is not that this horrible place does not live up to today’s standards, but that it actually passes the scrutiny of local, state, and federal government regulators in twenty-first century America.
As far as these agencies are concerned a bare-minimum adherence to the guidelines is good enough. This place is a testimony to how minimal the minimum standards really are.
The USDA’s most recent inspection from October 2016 found the aquarium in full compliance with federal regulations.
As expressed in some of the above comments, the faith of the non-mammalian animals imprisoned in Morro Bay Aquarium is, if possible, even worse. Lobster, octopus, moray eels and other fish species lay listlessly in their barren, poorly lit, mislabeled tanks – some of them minimalisticly adorned with a few pebbles, pvc pipes and cinder blocks – in an utterly depressing, dark room. Many of these animals spent their entire miserable lives in solitary confinement.
Sadly the Animal Welfare Act does not even apply to these sentient, but cold-blooded creatures. On the APHIS website it says:
“The Animal Welfare Act and its associated regulations require that federally established standards of care and treatment be provided for certain warm-blooded animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially or exhibited to the public.”
Pay attention to the word ‘certain’. The AWA does not only exclude cold-blooded animals like insects, fish, reptiles and amphibians, but also rats, mice, and birds bred for research, who together constitute an estimated 90-95% of animals in laboratories. It also excludes farmed animals raised for food and fiber or used in agricultural research, like cows, pigs and chicken, animals suffering through hunting, fishing & trapping and the treatment of pets …
Just like the Morro Bay Aquarium, the AWA is an unacceptable relic.
According to a staff report from the City of Morro Bay, the city started negotiating a new lease with the Tyler family in 2011. The Tyler family initially bid to renew its lease, but that didn’t meet city approval because the family proposed minimal change to the aging facility.
The city decided that if the aquarium were to stay open under current management, the Tylers would need to make major upgrades. If you gather from this that the city officials were concerned about the imprisoned animals’ housing, welfare, let alone rights, you are mistaken; the municipality wanted the Tylers to add a ten-foot sidewalk in front of the business and an extension of a 12-foot boardwalk in the back of the business.
No agreement was reached and by May 2015, the Morro Bay City Council had voted unanimously to work with the Central Coast Aquarium – a non-profit located in Avila Beach, operating a small aquarium there – to draft a proposal for operating and redeveloping the property, as well as to potentially take over the lease in 2018.
And so, if all goes as planned, a new multi-million-dollar waterfront aquarium will open to visitors in Morro Bay in 2020. The organizers still need to raise an estimated 7 to 10 million dollar and go through a city planning process, but they hope to break ground in 2019.
Meanwhile few question the need for another ‘fish prison’, with the ‘Aquarium of the Pacific’ 220 miles – a three-and-a-half hour drive – to the south in Long Beach and ‘Monterey Bay Aquarium’ 145 miles – a 2 hour and 15 minutes drive – to the north on Monterey’s Cannery Row.
What you could also ask yourself is: why would someone want to go see or display animals in glass tanks and concrete pools when there is abundant, very visible, ‘free’ aquatic wildlife right there on the aquarium’s doorstep in Morro Bay?
The reason is, as so often, money. The city of Morro Bay plans to charge the new aquarium a $1 annual lease as part of the 40- or 50-year lease agreement and agreed to not collect any proceeds from the aquarium because of the expected benefit to both the public and the city. The new facility is expected to draw thousands of tourists annually and generate sales for local businesses and sales tax for the city.
If you think that with the planning and preparations for the new aquarium there would arise an epiphany about the horrible situation in which the animals live at the current facility, you are mistaken. The city and new-aquarium officials, on the contrary, plan “to honor the Tylers’ legacy with photos, artifacts or other displays” and thereby ‘celebrate’ over half a century of animal abuse and exploitation.
What else can the local authorities do? Acknowledging now the misery of the sea creatures in that place would be to admit their own complicity in decades of animal suffering. It is more convenient – for them, not the animals withering away in Morro Bay Aquarium – to keep their heads in the sand (or up their asses) one more year and this embarrassment might just go away quietly.
Tara Malzone, the executive director of the Central Coast Aquarium, said: “we’re very aware that we have a legacy to honor with the Tylers. Our mission is to cultivate a community dedicated to ocean stewardship, and we plan to promote that through education, engagement, and action.”
That first line does not install much fate in the ethics of the new aquarium’s management.
Meanwhile the priorities of the mentioned community lie with concerns over parking issues along the busy Embarcadero once the new aquarium opens its doors, not with the lives of captive animals, new and old.
What will happen to the sea lions and seal if they manage to survive until September 2018?
The new ‘Central Coast Aquarium’ will feature more than 50 species of local sea life, including octopus, jellyfish, sharks, sea stars and anemones, but does not plan to house marine mammals.
The Tylers own the seal and sea lions currently held at the aquarium. The aquarium’s manager, the grandson of the Tylers, told KSBY news that the facility has not decided where the marine mammals will go once the current lease ends in 2018.