Marine rescuers making a difference


Words by Mark, Melbourne Zoo’s Marine Response Unit coordinator

If you’re at the beach and see an injured seal, what do you do? If you’re at a pier or jetty and see a bird tangled up in plastic or fishing line, who can help it? If a turtle, dolphin or stingray looks like it’s in trouble, who do you call? The answer is Melbourne’s Zoo’s Marine Response Unit.

We live in a beautiful city, in a beautiful state with access to some of Australia’s most beautiful coastlines. I grew up on the coast, and have always loved snorkelling and diving. Victoria’s marine ecosystems are home to an extraordinary array of animals and as someone passionate about that wildlife, I feel lucky to be on the front line of caring for these marine creatures.

Every day in the Marine Response Unit – we call it the MRU for short – is different. We might be off to the beach on the south-west coast one day, at a lake in a housing estate the next, and down at the Yarra River in the CBD after that. We care for everything from seals to sea birds, dolphins, sharks, rays, fish, turtles, you name it!

The MRU was set up in 2013, although Melbourne Zoo already had a long history of working with marine wildlife. But every year we received more calls, and had to help more animals. So, the MRU was formed. There’s now two of us working full time as part of the unit, and we work alongside Melbourne Zoo’s amazing veterinary team to treat and rehabilitate injured animals. We’ve recorded more than 900 cases during the past year, and there’s more coming in every day.

When people visiting a beach or a lake or a river call us to report what they believe is an animal in distress, our job is to investigate and establish if we need to intervene. Sometimes we can treat the animal at the scene, other times we need to bring it back to the Zoo for our vet team to assess and treat, hopefully with the prospect of it being re-released to the wild as soon as possible. But unfortunately, not every animal we see can be treated, rehabilitated and released. Sometimes injuries are so severe that the most humane welfare decision is compassionate euthanasia to relieve an animal’s suffering. These situations are never easy, but I take comfort from knowing that we have brought some dignity, respect and compassion to the final hours of an animal’s life.

Working this job, I see clearly that our waterways are home to so many amazing creatures. Of course, sometimes animals get sick or die from natural events in the wild. But unfortunately, I also see how much damage we humans are doing to these special places and the animals that live in them. The MRU sees the impact of plastic and other rubbish in marine ecosystems first-hand every day.


I’ve had to rescue sea birds that have swallowed fishing hooks. We see seals entangled in ropes and nets. I’ve rescued a duck that was being strangled by a plastic milk bottle cap ring. One bird the MRU treated had a baby’s sock wrapped around its beak and hadn’t been able to feed for days.


It can be confronting to see how such seemingly innocuous objects can have such a dramatic impact on the life of a sea bird or other marine creature. So, I’ve become passionate about encouraging all of us to take steps in our own lives to keep oceans and rivers and lakes clean and healthy and safe for the animals that live in them.

It’s the stories that end happily that keep us going, and knowing we have made a difference. Sometimes we get very attached to the animals we are caring for, but absolutely the best part of my job is the moment when you see an animal swim or fly back into its natural environment.

After the rescue, the treatment and sometimes the weeks of rehabilitation, that moment keeps me going. This job has shown me how precious our marine ecosystems are, and how we all have a part to play in protecting the amazing animals that live in them.

Anyone who sees a marine animal in distress can call Melbourne Zoo’s Marine Response Unit on 1300 245 678 •

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