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Laguna Beach

 Volume 13, Issue 95  |  November 26, 2021

PMMC and community mourns passing of John Cunningham, co-founder of PMMC


In the past few days, many in the community have called John Cunningham, co-founder of Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC), a “gamechanger.” There’s no doubt that he was – in more ways than one. It appears that he positively affected everyone (and everything) he came in contact with, whether it be human or pinniped. 

Sadly, earlier this week, Laguna lost another legend.

Cunningham was one of the co-founders of Friends of the Sea Lions, now known as the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. While John spent his summers as a Laguna Beach Lifeguard, education was his first love. He taught science in the Laguna Beach Unified School District for over 30 years and was widely known for creating a marine science curriculum for the school and an experiential course in survival skills that people still talk about today. 

John received his BA from California State University Long Beach and received his MA from the University of Redlands. John and his wife, Stephanie, moved to Laguna Beach in 1965. 

PMMC and couple

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Courtesy of PMMC

John and his wife Stephanie in late 2019 at the last sea lion release that he attended at Aliso Creek Beach

Pacific Marine Mammal Center began as Friends of the Sea Lion (FSL) in 1971 with only three volunteers: Jim Stauffer, John Cunningham, and Dr. Rose Ekeberg.

John, who co-founded FSL with Jim Stauffer, continued to be intimately involved with the organization. He was honored at the PMMC “Call of the Sea” Gala in September of 2019. The fundraiser served as an opportunity to reflect on his contributions to the organization and the greater community over the years. The event kicked off with a tribute video and as reported, there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd as they gave him a standing ovation.

On PMMC’s 50th anniversary in February 2021, he said, “In 1971, Jim Stauffer, Dr. Rose Ekeberg, and I started a small group known as the Friends of the Sea Lions. With the help of a handful of Laguna Beach high school students, our mission was to rescue, rehabilitate, and release sick and injured seals and sea lions along the Orange County coast. Today, 50 years later, I am so proud to still be a part of what’s become a world-class nonprofit now known as the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.”

FSL was the first licensed marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation center in the state of California. It began with two lifeguards, a veterinarian, and a concerned little girl for a sick harbor seal on the beach. 

PMMC and hosing off

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Courtesy of PMMC

Cleaning up outdoor area at PMMC

In the spring of 1971, a little girl approached Jim Stauffer, a Newport Beach lifeguard, on the beach. The little girl told Jim that she had seen a seal on the beach. Jim hopped in his lifeguard Jeep and went to go investigate. What he found was a young Pacific harbor seal. When Jim placed the animal in his Jeep, it leaped right out. Jim decided the animal must be healthy and just needed to rest, so he returned to work. 

Concern for the animal nagged at him all day. When Jim returned to check on the small seal, it was still on the beach. Jim picked up the seal and took it to the Dover Shores Animal Hospital, where Dr. Rod La Shell examined the animal and found that it had lungworms. With advice from Dr. La Shell, Jim nursed the harbor seal back to health and released the animal back into the ocean. 

Word of Jim’s nursing skills soon spread. Whenever there was a sick or injured seal or sea lion on the beach, lifeguards would contact him. Within a few weeks, Jim was caring for a second a California sea lion. John, another lifeguard, began helping Jim care for the animals. 

The Department of Fish and Game issued the first permit of its kind in California. Jim was allowed to temporarily house seals and sea lions at his home. 

PMMC and barn door

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Courtesy of PMMC

John at the barn door of the marine mammal hospital

With the organization growing quickly, a facility other than Jim’s home and pool was necessary. At that time, the local SPCA was using a barn owned by the City of Laguna Beach. In 1976, when the SPCA relocated, the building was offered to Pacific Marine Mammal Center. Jim, John, and a few volunteers began renovation of the barn that still functions today as the Center’s rehabilitation hub.

During the school year, John taught at Laguna Beach High School and, in 1972, he developed a marine science class. One of the requirements for the students of John’s class was volunteering at Pacific Marine Mammal Center. Dr. Ekeberg of Laguna Canyon Animal Hospital provided medicine and medical advice, as well as housing some of the animals at her clinic.

“John was such an inspiration,” says PMMC Chief Executive Officer Peter Chang. “He made an overwhelming and lasting impression with everyone that he touched. He was always so thankful to the entire Pacific Marine Mammal Center family for carrying on something that he was so extremely passionate about. He left an incredible legacy. In fact, a great deal of what we do today is a result of what John instilled into the fabric of our culture and operations. Although he’s moved on, he will never be forgotten. He is someone that will be missed dearly.”


Lana Johnson, Editor - [email protected]

Tom Johnson, Publisher - [email protected]

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Alexis Amaradio, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Maggi Henrikson, Marrie Stone, Sara Hall, Stacia Stabler and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists.

In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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