Peter Wallerstein and the Marine Animal Rescue Team

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Peter Wallerstein and the Marine Animal Rescue Team

By Lee Hall and Peter Wallerstein, from Friends of Animals

Marine Animal Rescue provides professional marine animal response, rescue and transportation services at no cost to the California coastal community it serves, and has rescued thousands of animals over the years.

It was founded as Whale Rescue Team in Playa Del Ray, California in 1985 by Peter Wallerstein, and merged with Friends of Animals in 2007. The idea for the merger was to have Friends of Animals doing the public outreach and fundraising, allowing Peter to get on with the rescue work.

And what a lot of work it is. In 2009, Peter managed the rescues of more than 350 marine mammals and 140 sea birds.

It’s quite typical to see three stranded animals in the course of a single day. In March, as we prepared to go to press, MAR assisted 51 elephant seals, 13 sea lions and a harbor seal.

All rescues must be well planned to ensure the safety of the animal and the rescuers. When the rescuer approaches with the net and attempts to place it over the animal’s head, the response can be unpredictable. Even with the most extensive training and experience, along with proper rescue equipment, rescuers learn to expect the unexpected.

So Why Do The Animals Get Stranded?

Some animals have cancers, and even the abundance of natural blooming algae, which can create dangerous levels of domoic acid, are exacerbated by pollution.

But the biggest reason by far, Peter says, involves the commercial fish operations. Animals are found with nets around their heads, or fish hooks and lines stuck in their bodies. Devoted to being part of the solution and not part of the problem, Peter does not eat fish—or any animals at all.

“We also have shootings, and victims of seal bombs,” he says, referring to explosives provided to fish industry workers by the federal government. “They are allowed to use them to keep sea lions from the fishing gear. Some workers have been known to put the bombs in a dead fish and then feed it to a sea lion, where the bomb blows up in the seal’s mouth.”

Recently, Peter began employing “Helmet Cam” videos to record the rescues. Now, others may use his techniques in training.

“I want to provide footage that shows the rescues from the eyes of the rescuer,” he says.“Rescues can be dangerous and at times even life-threatening.”

And no wonder. Sea lions have teeth that are designed for ripping through flesh. A sea lion on land is agile and quick. They can easily elude rescue if it is not conducted properly.

In contrast, elephant seal pups—although they too will bite when frightened—are slow on land. “Really slow,” Peter says. “If an elephant seal pup beats a rescuer to the water, the rescuer should find another line of work.”

Just as we’re going to press, Peter has encountered a 450-pound sea lion on a dock at Larson’s Marina in San Pedro. The otherwise very strong sea lion has taken a severe wound to the mouth and has been unable to eat. The wound is consistent with an injury caused by a seal bomb.

“We felt the pressure to make this dangerous attempt successful on the first try, using the floating net,” he told us. “If we missed him, we might not get another chance. Even if we did get the sea lion to jump into the floating net, what were we going to do then? The dock is hundreds of yards from where our rescue truck pulled up. I knew it would be very difficult to safely transport him to the truck by carrying him on the narrow dock.”

Peter called the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Baywatch. The captain was willing to assist.

“If we could get him to jump into the net,” said Peter, “Baywatch would transport the heavy sea lion to the dock and then we’d use a commercial crane, provided by Al Larson’s, to lift the animal from the boat onto the dock and into the transportation cage.”

MAR swam the floating net into position as the Baywatch crew and a rescuer from the dock approached the sea lion in this effort to force the animal to turn and dive into the floating net.

It worked! The injured sea lion jumped into the floating frame. Assisted by Baywatch, boaters from Larson’s Marina and Al Larson’s Boat Works employees, MAR rescued the sea lion and transported him for medical attention.

Peter is grateful for your donations, which help keep these marine mammals and sea birds healthy and free.