No sea lion is too big for Marine Animal Rescue’s Peter Wallerstein to save
By Josephine Johnson
The husky male sea lion languished for than a year among the boat docks of Marina del Rey, a discarded nylon packing strap wrapped around the animal’s neck so tightly that it left a raw circular wound.
For months Peter Wallerstein, who has spent the past three decades rescuing sick or injured marine animals from Westside shorelines, received calls from concerned residents. But each time he arrived at the docks to capture the hefty sea lion for lifesaving treatment, the animal would awaken and disappear into the water.
Wallerstein, not about to give up, hatched a new plan that involved some heavy-duty assistance — a truck with a winch and a crew of Los Angeles County lifeguards and sheriff’s deputies. After finding the elusive animal asleep on a yacht’s dive platform, Wallerstein slipped quietly into the water and deployed a floating net around the back of the boat. He pounded on the platform and the startled creature instinctively dove into the net. Following a short but sizable struggle, the sea lion was hoisted into the truck and delivered to the nonprofit Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, where it was treated before being released back into the marina about a month later.
“That laceration left such a scar that people still think it’s an open wound,” Wallerstein said of the sea lion, which still hangs out in the harbor. “Five years later, and I still get calls on that fella.”
At 62, Wallerstein remains the director and sole staff member of Marine Animal Rescue, a 24/7 nonprofit animal emergency response unit headquartered at Dockweiler State Beach. Saving sea animals is what Wallerstein breathes, thinks and dreams. Marine Animal Rescue responds to emergencies from Pacific Palisades to San Pedro to Catalina Island, and Wallerstein sleeps close to his cell phone to take calls from law enforcement, lifeguards and members of the public whenever they come.
Wallerstein estimates that he’s come to the aid of some 4,000 marine mammals — seals, sea lions, dolphins and whales included — and more than 2,000 sea birds off the Los Angeles County coastline since 1985. Last year he logged 430 mammal and 150 sea bird rescues, and as of May had wrangled with more than 200 marine mammals and nearly 100 sea birds this year.
“Peter Wallerstein is the Energizer Bunny of animal rescue. He’s never changed — he just keeps going,” said Dep. Tim Hazelwood of the Sheriff’s Dept.’s Marina del Rey Station, who has known Wallerstein for 30 years and was on hand in the harbor when Wallerstein wrangled the strap-constricted sea lion.
A Whale’s Gratitude
Wallerstein is at home in his office. He lives and works in a modest but well-cared-for RV at Dockweiler beach — a space just big enough for him, his once-feral longhair gray cat and the laptop, phones and paperwork necessary to run Marine Animal Rescue.
Originally from Connecticut, he spent a few years during the 1970s living in an isolated mountain cabin in New Hampshire before venturing to the Florida Keys, where he continued to live by himself on an otherwise uninhabited island.
Wallerstein said that in his solitude he sought mastery of the mind to temper his self-reliance and hone his creative problem-solving skills. Relying on himself in extreme conditions steeled him in his path to becoming an autonomous — albeit somewhat loner — environmentalist, long on moxie and short on tolerance for animal suffering.
In the early 1980s, Wallerstein found his way to California and became involved in whale rescues. After helping free a gray whale and her calf that had become entangled in fishing nets off the coast of Palos Verdes, Wallerstein was struck by how the mother whale seemed to know what the rescue team was doing.
“After we freed her, we worked to untangle her calf’s fluke. She swam under our boat six times without touching it, gently lifting the calf to the surface so it could breathe,” recalled Wallerstein, who interpreted the whale’s tenderness while they rapidly cut the lines from her calf as a token of gratitude.
“Here was this huge animal that could have easily risen up and pitched us from the boat, but her every motion remained slow and smooth,” he said.
When the rescuers finished, both whales swam circles around the team before disappearing into the depths of the mighty Pacific.
“This experience,” Wallerstein said, “was when I knew I was doing what I should be doing.”
Wallerstein soon began rescuing other animals along the Southern California coast and in 1988 established the non-profit Whale Rescue Team, rebranded in 2008 as Marine Animal Rescue.
In his early years, Wallerstein noted how seals and sea lions were handled during typical rescues. At the time, animal control officers and sometimes even city parking officials were called out to collect injured or stranded animals. They’d arrive with a snare — a long pole with a choke collar on the end — and would drag the animal by its neck area back to the ocean or to a transport vehicle. The method didn’t sit well with Wallerstein, who endeavored to conduct rescues in a manner that would inflict less pain and trauma.
“The less human contact and less constriction around an animal’s neck, the better,” said Wallerstein, who trains lifeguards and sheriff’s deputies how to interact with animals with as little human contact as possible. Now, instead of wrangling sea creatures with a snare, they call Wallerstein, who arrives with special nets constructed around PVC pipe and transport cages of his own design.
“We’ve all watched his equipment and techniques evolve,” said Hazelwood. “One day he rescued five abandoned seal pups, one right after another. He did it with nets only — no snares, no dragging.”
A Morning in the Life
It’s 8 a.m. on April 26, and already Wallerstein is on his way to San Pedro to deliver a seal pup he rescued overnight during the heavy winds of a late-season rainstorm. The pup had become stranded on the Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Station boat dock with a mess of gill net wrapped around its neck. Wallerstein removed the netting but the pup seemed underweight, so he opted to take it to the Marine Animal Care Center.
The pup is checked in by 9 a.m., but as soon as Wallerstein is back on the freeway he gets a call from local birders at Dockweiler. They’ve found an injured cormorant.
At the beach a ring of birders greets Wallerstein with eager smiles. A middle-aged woman is cradling a cormorant wrapped in a blue shirt, both shirt and bird gritty and matted with sand.
“I think it’d be best not to wrap the bird,” Wallerstein says.
“But it’s shivering; it must be so cold,” the woman says, softly but firmly.
Wallerstein unwraps the bird and loads it into a small crate in the back of his truck. It is trembling and for a moment tries feebly to stand. The birders thank Wallerstein as he pulls away from the beach—just in time to respond to a call in El Segundo about an emaciated pup near the power plant.
Down the coast, Wallerstein drives cautiously over the sand until he comes upon the pup, which lies exposed on a narrow stretch of the beach. A five-foot retaining wall rises on one side while the surf pounds fiercely on the other. To rescue this one, Wallerstein has to park 100 feet or more away and then hope the animal doesn’t retreat into the water before he can get his net around it.
This time, however, the pup has a significant lead and slips into the water just as Wallerstein’s net comes down empty at the edge of the sea. No dice.
It’s almost 10 a.m. as Wallerstein climbs back into the truck. Timing the surf just right, he shoots his truck through the narrow strip of sand to where Los Angeles County lifeguard Jesse Simon waits in a red four wheel drive truck. The men roll down their windows.
“Damn, you’ve got bigger ones than I’ve got,” proclaims Simon, slowly shaking his head.
Again, Wallerstein’s phone rings interrupting conversation. This one’s a report of a pelican with a broken wing.
“Doesn’t sound good,” Wallerstein says.
He drives along the beach back to Dockweiler and finds the injured brown pelican, its left wing trailing behind, and, like the cormorant, covered in sand. This bird fights being handled, but Wallerstein prevails. With one hand around the top of the pelican’s beak and his other hand securing its wings, Wallerstein steadies the bird and loads it into a large crate. “They’ll probably have to euthanize this one,” he says, “but at least it’s more humane than for it to wait around and be picked apart by the gulls and crows or torn apart by dogs.”
By 11:15 a.m., Wallerstein is back in San Pedro to drop off the cormorant and pelican at a bird rescue center at Fort MacArthur.
Fixing Broken Animals
Peter Wallerstein rescues injured marine animals, but he doesn’t fix them.
Wallerstein’s Marine Animal Rescue is one of three organizations, along with Long Beach Animal Control and the California Wildlife Center, that regularly bring patients to the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur.
Marine Mammal Care Center Operations Director David Bard said the organization typically treats between 300 and 500 marine mammals each year. Most are eventually released back into the wild.
Last year was especially busy for the center, which Bard said handled more than 600 animal patients, largely due to food distribution issues among California sea lions that resulted in malnourished pups.
Wallerstein, who logged 430 mammal rescues last year, was the starting point for many of those rescues.
“Rescue agencies, including Marine Animal Rescue, perform a valued service in our community. They play an important role in the stranding network,” Bard said.
The types of animals that come to the Marine Mammal Care Center vary by season, with sea lions and seals giving birth at different points in the year. Domoic acid, an algae-produced biotoxin affiliated with red tide, can be a factor in late spring, but Bard said that so far this year the number of those cases has not been high.
This year the center saw between 250 and 300 animal patients in the first four months of the year— down from more than 400 over the same period in 2013 — but next year’s anticipated El Niño weather cycle is expected to impact food sources and drive up rescue numbers.
Injuries that are irrefutably due to human interaction — net entanglements, debris ingestion and even the occasional gunshot wound — account for 10% to 15% of cases annually, Bard said.
Wallerstein’s efforts to get animals to the care center are immensely praiseworthy, said Robert Jan van de Hoek, president of the Ballona Institute, a wetlands advocacy group in Playa del Rey.
“Without a full-time warden or rangers [for the Ballona Wetlands], Peter ends up picking up the slack,” van de Hoek said. “In my view he is one of the heroes of