Saving Sealife

In the spring of 1984, Peter Wallerstein received a phone call about an adult whale and her calf struggling to free themselves from the cutting confines of a gill net. Many of his previous phone calls to the Los Angeles city authorities had gone unanswered, and Wallerstein, then director of the Sea Shepherd Society, decided it was time to take matters into his own hands.

The Whale Rescue Team releases another rehabilitated sea lion.©THE WHALE RESCUE TEAM

"The whales were wrapped in 40 to 50 feet of net. So, I got a little boat, some lines and two crew members," Wallerstein says. Once the team managed to free the mother, they turned to her calf. As they hustled to cut the net away, the mother swam under her baby and lifted it gently, making it easier for the team to snip through the mesh. Just as the last string was cut, the duo swam off into the horizon, leaving behind a volunteer with a yearning to do more. And out of that yearning grew the Southern California-based Whale Rescue Team.

Many marine mammal populations are at extreme lows. Many seals, sea lions and other mammals also end up entangled in fishing nets—and end up drowning—after they tried to steal fish.

For 21 years, Whale Rescue Team volunteers have relieved entangled or beached whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions and sea birds along the California coast. According to Wallerstein, beach communities throughout Los Angeles County were in desperate need of appropriate equipment, a high standard of care and a well-trained team. Wallerstein counts on volunteers for help with rescues, including police officers, fire department officials and county lifeguards.

"We’re the eyes down here," says Captain Mike Inscore of the LA County Lifeguards. "If we see a sea lion in trouble we call [Wallerstein]."

With the domoic acid outbreak in 2002, the number of debilitated sea lions rose tremendously. Domoic acid, a naturally occurring but deadly nerve toxin produced by sea algae, killed a record number of sea lions along sections of California’s southern coast. The toxin can cause seizures and disorientation in sea lions, making a rescue much more difficult.

Last year the Whale Rescue Team made 165 rescues. This year the numbers have already touched 230 mammals and 240 sea birds. "The most difficult part is hoop netting the animal," says Peter Brown of the team. "Then Peter [Wallerstein] holds it down, and one of his helpers rolls the animal into the cargo net." Then, Wallerstein drives the animal in his pickup to the rehabilitation center for seals and sea lions in San Pedro.

Besides rescues, the group also conducts advocacy work for marine wildlife and campaigns against the capture of healthy marine mammals.

"It’s hard to see so much suffering on a day-to-day basis. My motivation is helping these animals," Wallerstein says.