Story by Jon Council
CATALAN ISLAND, August 18, 2016 -For about a week leading up to Friday, August 12, 2016, Marine Animal Rescue (MAR) field officers had been receiving multiple reports of a sea turtle near Lover’s Cove adjacent to Avalon which had been fouled with fishing hooks and trailing lines. With each response, (a half dozen) the outcome was frustratingly the same, the animal, while having just been seen by snorkelers, kayakers, glass bottom boat skippers, etc, within the past thirty minutes or so, could not be located by responding MAR field officers once on scene to determine its condition.
The elusive “Honu” (Hawaiian for turtle) was obviously mobile and not floating on the surface where it could be easily tracked. Since it was still swimming and diving, it made locating the one small animal in a very large volume of water a daunting challenge.
Depending on the amount of trailing line and severity of the hook entanglement, the animal’s health was legitimately in jeopardy since getting the line snagged on rocks or some other submerged object could render the turtle trapped underwater, which would eventually drown it.
On the morning of the 12th, Avalon residents Suri Phaungphakdi and Greg Harris (who are both members of a local swim club), were snorkeling near Abalone point when they spotted the turtle hovering underwater. Greg remained in visual contact with the animal while Suri swam to shore to use her cellphone to report it to me. I grabbed a large capture net and called Avalon Harbor to assist since each minute was critical and deploying the MAR patrol boat may have taken up valuable and much needed response time.
Harbor Patrolman Curt Cameron picked me up at Avalon float 5, and we proceeded to Abalone point where Suri and Greg were following the turtle from a safe distance. Cameron, who was instrumental in the rescue effort, maneuvered the Avalon Harbor vessel near the creature each time it neared the surface for a breath, but the turtle was extremely wary of the boat and with each approach it darted into a dive long before I was able to even pretend to get the net near it.
After several failed attempts, plan “B” was launched. I slid in the water and among four separate individuals keeping tabs on it, I waited for the animal to resurface again for air. After about twenty minutes our quarry began a slow ascent towards the surface upon which I positioned myself directly behind it, and once it got within a few feet of the surface I was able to reach out and hand capture it and make a rapid transfer to Curt Cameron waiting on the swimstep of the harbor boat. Quickly all three swimmers boarded the craft and moved the animal to the main deck where I was able to perform a fairly routine in-field removal of the hook and line. Afterwards, a full body inspection to search for any additional injuries or causes for concern revealed none and the Honu (which was later suspected to be an Olive-Ridley sea turtle) was released back into the water to carry on its life. A raucous celebration ensued on board the harbor rescue boat.
The turtle rescue became case number 564 for Marine Animal Rescue in just over 3-1/2 years of operation throughout Catalina waters. When I first took on the role of field operations lead in November of 2012, I had no idea that so much need existed for responding to injured or poorly located animals surrounding the island and Avalon.
MAR is a 30-year-old not for profit, Los Angeles County based organization headed up by Founder Peter Wallerstein and comprises teams of field officers working the beach zones throughout L.A. County and when called upon, will even reach beyond into adjacent counties north and south. MAR is fully sanctioned by Federal agencies NOAA and the Department of National Marine Fisheries which authorize our field agents to legally respond to and handle all forms of marine mammals protected through the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This includes whales, dolphins, pinnipeds-(seals and sea lions) and additionally all shore birds which fall into a separate category.
The Catalina Island division of Marine Animal Rescue was formed out of necessity to address the many reports emanating from the island, but were unable to be responded to in a timely fashion from the mainland because of distance logistics, and includes dedicated personnel such as Darwin Horn, Eric Mahan, Dr. Richard and Anney Denney, and the entire staff of Avalon animal hospital along with many caring volunteers.
Documented data supports that the overwhelming number of ocean related animal injury reports around the island seem to involve some form of entanglement with fishing hooks and line, plastics or some type of netting. Unfortunately, we also see a disturbing amount of gunshot injuries, or improvised explosive devise injuries to marine mammals as well, which is particularly troubling since I cannot comprehend why it is that some people can’t recognize that we share this planet with other living things which also have a right to exist. Shore based responses involve many birds with similar hook and line entanglements along with broken wings or some other form of body trauma and of course during pup weaning season (December through May) we respond to an incredible amount of wayward seal and sea lion pups simply trying to figure out where to go without mom.
In the majority of cases, quick reaction through a well established reporting network which includes Avalon Sheriff’s dispatch, Avalon Harbor Department, City and County fire departments, Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, The Catalina Island Conservancy, City of Avalon, Catalina Express, Express Helicopter service, the freight yard, building supply, and Southern California Edison has enabled MAR to reach compromised animals in a very short time frame and more than 90-plus percent of these animals are successfully treated and released. For the rest, if transportation to mainland medical facilities is unrealistic or simply too late for a viable option, those animals are humanely euthanized to eliminate further suffering.
Of course, Catalina Island is an incredibly unique location, so it stands to reason that MAR’s realm of responsibility surrounding the island would sort of follow suit. By description, “Marine Animal Rescue” concurs images of seals, dolphins, whales and the like, but due to our growing reputation as a reliable “go-to” animal rescue resource, which has blossomed in the past few years, MAR has evolved and has also been called into action for dozens of injured deer, Island Fox, or animals in locations which put either it or the public at risk. Creatures such as rattlesnakes, Gopher snakes, and birds ranging from Eagles and Osprey to Herons and Hummingbirds are all on the usual suspects list for MAR now.
While technically these creatures fall outside MAR’s mission statement of involvement, it’s also fully realized that these other animals are just as much in need of help. MAR personnel have the training, tools and tactics to respond effectively with animal rescues and so in nearly all instances we will. To do so is the right, ethical and responsible thing to do, especially since well over 70 percent of case reporting from citizens is from tourists visiting the island.
To not respond to visitor’s willingness to report compromised animals would be a poor reflection of our island community. Therefore in doing so, visitors witness first hand positive results from their involvement in our community on behalf of our local wildlife and a negative experience of seeing an injured animal is immediately transformed into an undeniably positive experience once they see prompt, humane treatment and/or medical care rendered to the creature in question.
Much of MAR’s daily interactive work is centered around public outreach educational efforts as we routinely explain normal versus abnormal animal behaviors. This is especially true when it comes to seals and sea lions hauling out on beaches which many people will interpret as a sign of distress as they often equate this beaching behavior as synonymous with whale or dolphin strandings. Seals and sea lions exit the water almost daily to rest and warm themselves. When they do so on public access areas it can become problematic, but only in the sense that now people can also access them and regularly attempt to. That’s when MAR steps in to either educate the public that this is normal behavior, requesting that people please respect the animal’s right to rest at peace. If that and a barrier of caution tape are not enough to ensure no harassment of the animal, we will often capture and relocate it to a more remote location for everyone’s safety. It should be mentioned that harassment of marine mammals can carry stiff financial penalties of up to $10,000.00 along with other possible penalties including incarceration.
Our team effort between MAR and Avalon Harbor along with some good samaritan citizens resulted in just the latest successful rescue effort for one little Honu in Catalina waters. It certainly won’t be the last animal in need of help, but because it was unusual, unique and involved multi-agency personnel, equipment and public assistance it was also one to cherish, celebrate and remember.
For more information regarding Marine Animal Rescue, please, visit our website: http://www.marspecialists.org