Sea lion rescue

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Posted by on June 05, 2005 at 05:33:15:

Things get dicey for expert and lifeguards as they try to save a snared pup stranded on a bell buoy.

In 21 years, Peter Wallerstein had saved thousands of sea mammals, but he had never seen anything like this. Not only did the small sea lion have yards of gull netting tangled around its neck, but it also had somehow trapped itself on a bell buoy outside King Harbor in Redondo Beach when a length of the net's thread-thin blue fiber wrapped around a screw.

He knew that if he didn't act soon, the pup -- maybe a year old -- would die.

"It's a death sentence," he said.

But the ocean was not cooperating late Saturday afternoon as county lifeguard Phil Navarro tried to move his boat into position. He made one pass, then another, but the water was swelling and the boat was bouncing like a toy. Wallerstein, of the Whale Rescue Team, tried to reach the seal with a giant net, but he couldn't get close enough. And while other sea lions lounging on the buoy were able to jump into the water, the trapped animal was only pulling the nylon cord tighter around its neck as it tried to escape.

Navarro thought about returning to base and trying again early today when the water was calmer, but Wallerstein wanted to try again. As he thought about what to do, lifeguard Hiro Haskett donned a wet suit and prepared himself.

Minutes passed.

"You have ocean currents, swells and wind," Navarro said. "And the buoy is moving around. It can be dangerous."

As Navarro edged near the buoy again, Haskett hopped aboard. Now there was nothing between him and the terrified seal, which could bite with a force stronger than a guard dog.

Wallerstein again tried to net the animal, but even with Haskett's assistance, couldn't get it around the pup's neck. He too was going to have to jump onto the buoy. But its surface was slick from algae and either man could easily slip and fall. Or worse, hit his head on a sharp corner.

As Navarro made another pass, Haskett grabbed Wallerstein's arm and pulled him over. The buoy was swaying furiously and the two men had to hold on with one hand while trying to catch the sea lion with the other.

Navarro pulled the boat further away as the two men struggled to free the animal. But they had to be careful. The netting might act as a tourniquet and if they removed too much, the seal might bleed to death.

A pair of kayakers paddled closer to watch. Passengers on a tour boat craned their necks at the commotion as they sailed by.

Five minutes. Ten minutes. Finally, the pair were able to coax the struggling seal into the net. The rest was easy. Navarro brought the boat around for the last time and the pair hoisted the seal aboard and climbed on the boat. Wallerstein tried his best to pacify the animal on the short ride to the harbor, but it remained stubborn and scared.

But it calmed once it was in a cage in the back of Wallerstein's truck. After that, it was just a short ride to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, where the pup would be treated before it's released into the ocean.

"I've never seen anything like it," Wallerstein said.

And then he thought about what he had just done.

"Scared isn't the word for what I felt," he said. "I'm humbled."

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