The Whale Rescue Team: Marine Animals’ Lifeguard
It’s a simple principle: the Whale Rescue Team believes that human beings have a duty to help other animals when our activities harm them. Their rescue specialists cannot free a fish from the angler’s line; only a growing vegetarian movement can do that. But these specialists do find a great many other animals -- animals who could live full and free lives -- accidentally entangled, literally or figuratively, by human activities. Marooned, poisoned, or trapped, these animals are enough to keep the Whale Rescue Team busy every day of the year.
In the mid-1980s, Peter Wallerstein began freeing California gray whales from commercial gill nets. Since then, Peter’s work as a marine wildlife rescue specialist in Los Angeles County has involved whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions along a diverse coastline that includes Marina del Rey, the world’s largest artificial marina; the cliffs of Palos Verdes; and the crowded beaches of Venice, as well as Santa Monica, the Southbay, and the busy ports of Los Angeles Harbor and San Pedro .
Whales, when entangled in nets or anglers’ gear, can be seen gashed, struggling, jumping frantically. Being struck by an angler’s boat is a trauma that can kill a humpback whale.
Peter’s team also rescues dozens of gulls and other sea birds each year. They’ve assisted mute swans and herons; grebes and mures; cormorants and murrelets ; fulmars who choke on marine litter; loons, egrets and terns; scoters, mallards and ruddy ducks.
Marine rescuers in the county find sea lions stranded in flood control channels and inside power plants, or raiding bait shop refrigerators, stuck in power plant basins miles from the ocean, and even sleeping inside public bathrooms. One chilly winter night, Peter found two sea lion pups sleeping beside and atop some homeless people under the Santa Monica Pier. One pup left independently, but the other needed assistance. To replace their warm presence, Peter gave the homeless people shirts and windbreakers.
Then there was the spring Sunday when Peter and the Whale Rescue Team received a call from the Los Angeles County Lifeguards about a sea lion stranded at the rocks at the Venice Beach Lifeguard headquarters. They rushed to the scene to find a sea lion of about 150 pounds wedged into the bottom of the rock jetty.
“The sea lion could barely raise her nose out of the water between the waves crashing overhead,” recalls Peter. “The tide was high and the surf was pounding the jetty, and I shall never forget the desperate look on that sea lion's face, gasping for air as the water covered her again and again, her bloodshot, bulging eyes expressing fright I had never before seen on the face of a marine mammal.”
Peter and Captain Tom Seth entered the surf, attached by a tether connected to Peter’s lifesaver. Tom kept tension on the tether as the water deepened, absorbing the waves’ impact and keeping Peter from washing too violently against the rocks. Lifeguard Brent Katzer called out as each wave was about to hit.
Something was keeping the sea lion trapped. The rescuers hoped that something was not the rocks. They’d be too heavy to budge. And time was running out.
Peter reached below the surface to try to feel beneath the sea lion’s chest for the obstruction: “My face was inches from the struggling sea lion as I reached around her chest.” That’s when Peter felt a rope squeezing the sea lion’s body. “This,” Peter thought and hoped, “must be what was keeping her stuck in her potential tomb. Seizing the right moment, I plunged down and cut the rope line.”
Within seconds, the sea lion was free.
In recent years, something unexpected has hit the Southern California coastline: a dramatic increase in sea lions and sea birds stranded in the throes of a violent form of poisoning. Domoic acid is produced by a neurotoxin that’s naturally present in California’s waters. Marine algae emit the toxin that that invades the bodies of sea animals, and cause hundreds of sea lions to wash up on Los Angeles County’s shoreline each year, suffering seizures and then paralysis. When there is a significant algal bloom, which has happened every spring for the last several years, a concentrate of poisonous acid creates “red tide.” It’s likely, explains Peter Wallerstein, that these increasingly potent algae blooms are triggered by runoff from animal agriculture, and the broader effects of global warming.
In late spring, the Whale Rescue Team may conduct up to 89 domoic sea lion rescues in a month -- an average of three a day. Sea lions suffering the effects of the toxic algae not only pose some of the most dangerous rescues, but are also most difficult emotionally, for their torment is so great and so visible. With every domoic outbreak, the Whale Rescue Team sees 200-plus-pound sea lions, overcome by the toxin, turning abnormally aggressive, confused and frightened.
“They rush from the ocean to the beach to charge anything they see moving,” Peter explains. “I see them chasing sunbathers from the beach, and forcing lifeguards and police officers into their vehicles.”
Most of the affected sea lions are pregnant adults. During pregnancy, they eat more, so they ingest more domoic acid. An electrolyte solution containing vitamin B-12 might flush out the toxin. Mammals are also given medication to control seizures. But if they are to have even a chance at survival, the affected animals need to be contained.
So the rescue team approaches with a hoop net -- a six-foot pole made from industrial piping, with a hoop at one end, attached to an eight-foot-deep, detachable net. Rescuers slowly approach the sea lion, obstructing the path back to the ocean, always keeping the water to their back. Sea lions running on all four flippers are quick and agile, and when agitated, they’ll charge the rescuer at full speed, biting the air.
“The rescuer must make eye contact,” says Peter. “Then begins an unchoreographed and frantic dance.”
Should the rescuer miss on the first attempt to get the hoop over the animal’s head, there might be one more fleeting chance. “The chances are also high that the rescuer will get bitten,” adds Peter. “Indeed, in 22 years of marine mammal rescues, the one bite I’ve sustained was from a sea lion suffering from domoic acid poisoning.”
This past year, Peter’s team has also assisted dozens of poisoned pelicans. When the neurotoxin takes effect, the birds will drop from the sky in seizures; if they survive the crash landings, they end up sitting in a daze, their heads waving back and forth. They land in the middle of crowed beaches or piers, then sit, oblivious to the human spectators who gather around them. The birds also land on airport runways, busy freeways, water treatment plants, or on the bait tanks of fishing boats.
It was the summer solstice of 2006, on the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna, when television reporters said a California brown pelican “flying under the influence” had crashed head-first into a car. Fortunately, there were no fatalities; remarkably, the driver was unhurt. But shattered glass cut a four-inch gash into the bird’s pouch. The pelican’s recovery and release from the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center on Huntington Beach became a media event.
“One pelican,” Peter recalls, “was successfully rescued after landing on the head of a bicyclist in Venice Beach -- a Brazilian tourist, whom I comforted with the knowledge that he’d probably saved the bird’s life by cushioning the fall.” (Both the pelican and the tourist fully recovered.)
The Fish Trade’s Hidden Costs
Peter remembers a pelican who fell, exhausted, into an ice plant in the Ballona Wetlands area. The bird’s pouch had three hooks, and the angler’s line entangled the bird’s entire body. Birds frequently become entangled this way, Peter reports -- and then there’s the commercial trade.
Gill netting is a common method used to catch ocean fish for the food industry. The netting, it is said, is closely monitored and regulated by enforcement agencies, such as the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the length, depth, mesh size, and strength of the netting is regulated to reduce by-catch of animals who aren’t the targets of the netting. But the Whale Rescue Team routinely finds sea lions suffering from gill net entanglement. If they are not assisted immediately, they’re usually doomed to die from infection or strangulation. Some do break free from the nets, but with pieces of netting wrapped tightly around their heads and necks.
“Once,” recalls Peter, “We received a report that a sea lion was stuck on a buoy off Redondo Beach.” The Whale Rescue team and a Los Angeles County Lifeguard Baywatch boat went out to investigate.
“Sea lions love sleeping on the buoys and many times the public mistakes a sleeping sea lion for one in trouble,” Peter explains. “But the Whale Rescue Team follows up every call, and when we arrived on scene we observed a small sea lion, tangled by the neck in yards of gill netting, ever-tightening as the pup struggled to get free of the bell buoy.”
The surf was about three to four feet as lifeguard Phil Navarro repeatedly tried to move the boat into position. The wind and swells pitched the boat back and forth. From the stern of the boat, Peter tried to reach the sea lion pup with a hoop net, but the boat wasn't close enough. They knew that somehow, they’d have to get on the buoy.
On the next pass, lifeguard Hiro Haskett managed to jump onto the buoy. One more approach, and Peter was pulled onto the buoy as well. It was swaying violently and slick with algae, and the rescuers both held on with one hand while trying to work with the sea lion -- without getting bitten. Captain Navarro pulled the boat a safe distance away as the two struggled to free the sea lion. Ten minutes later, they’d cut off the section of the net that was snagged on the buoy. The buoy’s deafening bell would ring in their ears hours after the rescue.
But the job wasn’t over. An animal wrapped tightly in gill net doesn’t survive long. Once freed, the pup had to be directly moved into the rescue net and hoisted aboard the boat. It would be two months before this sea lion healed from the wounds of this struggle and was back in the ocean, free.
In early June 2006, the Whale Rescue Team witnessed a particularly harsh example of how catching fish endangers other animals as well. A harbor seal pup swallowed two hooks cast by an angler at the end of Manhattan Beach pier. Then the angler reeled the pup 40 feet up and onto the pier.
Only one hook could be traced and removed at the pier, so the Whale Rescue Team took the pup for medical help. An x-ray showed the other hook inside the esophagus. The seal pup is now recovering from the trauma, and the outlook is good. When Peter observes that “things could have been worse,” one might think they could have been -- if no one were there to respond and to follow through. What motivates rescuers to do it? Peter replies, “It’s the desperate and frightened look one sees on a sea lion’s face -- and knowing that we’re the very few people with the experience and equipment to help.”
The rescuers have also worked with the Santa Monica Harbor Patrol to assist sea lions weakened by parasites. “If you're not a vegan to save the life of a fish,” Peter says, “Check out the worms other animals get from the fish they eat. If you do, I guarantee your diet will change.”
Support the Whale Rescue Team.
Peter Wallerstein and crew have little time to fundraise or vie with showy campaigners for grants. They work every day of the year; for the Web-savvy, they do have an active mailing list that includes reports and photos. Their efforts are supported by Friends of Animals, and they would appreciate your support as well, and would put it to immediate good use.
Invest in the Whale Rescue Team’s efforts this coming year.
Whale Rescue Team
P. O. Box 821
El Segundo, California 90245
If you live on the coast and you see a sea animal in distress, don't approach or try to feed the animal. The Whale Rescue Team has over two decades of experience and can recommend the best approach. You can reach them at 1.800.39-WHALE. For non-emergencies, phone 1.310.455.2729.
See the Whale Rescue Team in action.
Experience a virtual visit, complete with video footage, at www.whalerescueteam.org
Domoic Acid’s Threat to Sea Animals
Since early April 2006, scores of pelicans have been found in the throes of domoic acid poisoning. The tell-tale signs are a disoriented flight pattern, dropping from the sky, or suddenly flipping on their backs on the ground.
The bizarre illness strikes coastal animals from March through June. In mammals, including humans, domoic acid can cause short-term memory loss, permanent brain damage, and, in the absence of treatment, death.
Sardines, clams, mussels, and anchovies eat the poisonous phytoplankton. When marine mammals eat these smaller animals, an uncontrolled influx of calcium can overload their nervous systems.
Domoic acid was chemically identified in 1958 from the red alga called "doumoi" in Japan. It is now thought to have caused the 1961 invasion of thousands of frantic seabirds in Northern California that inspired Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds. At the time, the oceanside town of Capitola near Santa Cruz experienced what appeared to be an attack, as sea birds were seen bombarding cars, people and shop windows.
In 1987, more than 100 people became ill and several people died following the consumption of blue mussels caught off Prince Edward Island, Canada. Canadian scientists found that domoic acid had entered the food chain when the mussels fed on a toxic algal bloom.
Within the last several years, thousands of birds and mammals have died from the poisoning. It’s especially dangerous when it maroons dolphins, for they cannot survive without staying moist.
- Richard Degener, “Whale-Sighting Reports Provide Hope for Gear-Entangled Animal” – Press of Atlantic City (4 Oct. 2006).