If the iconic television series “Baywatch” had a reality show about rescuing marine animals, Peter Wallerstein would be its star.
With his truck bearing the logo of Marine Animal Rescue and equipped with nets and various other tools, Wallerstein can be seen responding from his base at Dockweiler State Beach to virtually any call of a stranded dolphin, a sea lion sick from a poisonous algae bloom or a seal injured by a fishing hook in Santa Monica Bay.
When it comes to stranded, sick or injured marine life over the last quarter of a century, Wallerstein has been the man to notify for rescue agencies in Marina del Rey, Venice, Playa del Rey and other coastal areas of Los Angeles County.
He has seen the gamut of unfortunate circumstances for area seals, sea lions, dolphins and sea birds – many to which most animal lovers would not dare to bear witness. But with more than 4,000 rescues under his belt, he has helped alter many of those troubles that have befallen the animals into positive outcomes.
“Physically, it’s demanding but there’s an emotional aspect of it too,” Wallerstein, the director of Marine Animal Rescue (MAR), said of his work with marine life. “What motivates me is my empathy toward the animals. Seeing their suffering, a lot of it caused by man, definitely has an effect on me. My compassion hasn’t changedŠ but I’ve learned to deal with it differently.”
In recognition of his efforts throughout his career, Wallerstein, 59, was selected by Oceana to receive its third annual adult Ocean Hero Award. Sophi Bromenshenkel of Minnesota, who raised over $3,500 for shark conservation, was the winner of the junior award.
Oceana is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans. A panel of experts at Oceana reviewed 500 nominations, narrowing the field to six adult and six junior finalists, and the public voted for the winners online.
“This year’s Ocean Heroes are truly impressive, largely because of their tangible achievements towards ocean conservation,” said Oceana Chief Executive Officer Andrew Sharpless. “Individual commitments like these all add up and make a real difference for the world’s oceans.”
Wallerstein attributed the honor to the various agencies that have assisted his rescue group over the years, such as the Los Angeles County Lifeguards and Harbor Patrol, saying that it recognizes their achievements.
“It’s really an acknowledgement of what we’ve done here and the success that we’ve had,” Wallerstein said of earning the Ocean Hero Award. “I’m the first to acknowledge how lucky I am as a human beingŠ but the most satisfaction I get is what we have working with all of the wonderful men and women of L.A. County and what we’ve created here.”
Wallerstein recalled how he first got involved in rescues locally after co-coordinating whale protection campaigns for Sea Shepherd in the North Atlantic and Bering Sea. One day he heard about a grey whale and her calf who were trapped in fishing nets off the coast of Palos Verdes and after learning there were no coordinated efforts for rescues, Wallerstein and helpers took the initiative – with little experience – to rescue the whales.
“I couldn’t help but take notice that maybe this is something I should be doing,” he remembered. “This was a success, and I could see that my efforts were actually having an impact.”
It was from there that Wallerstein shifted from international issues to “think globally, act locally,” and he founded the nonprofit Whale Rescue Team in 1985. He noted that at the time, the responsibility for rescues was placed on local agencies such as animal control, and it was a challenge for him to gain the support for a coordinated marine rescue effort.
“I committed myself to raise the standard of care in my own community and I was going to do whatever I could to do that,” he said.
Wallerstein explained that he has faced his share of struggles along the way to keep his program going, but he believes he has found his niche with aiding sea life and it was “supposed to happen for me.” Having dealt with thousands of calls that range in urgency, Wallerstein said he is prepared for the unexpected.
“I’m confident but yet not over confident,” said Wallerstein, whose Whale Rescue Team became Marine Animal Rescue a few years ago. “I’ve seen so much that I believe I have the ability to deal with pretty much any instance that comes up.”
A number of the rescues are related to sea lions with human-caused injuries such as fish hooks caught in the mouth or eyes, he said. Among the more challenging both physically and emotionally are those involving animals affected by domoic acid, a poisonous algae bloom, Wallerstein describes.
“To see that anxiety and the fright on the face of a sea lion with that neurotoxin exploding in their brainŠ it’s hard,” he said.
A number of marine animals have been sickened with domoic acid poisoning in recent years, and Wallerstein said the bloom this spring was intense and more potent than in previous years, noting MAR tallied 86 total rescues in April. The group set its annual record for rescues last year with nearly 400.
Wallerstein said MAR works most closely with county lifeguards during rescues, but he credited various sources such as dockmasters, harbor patrol and the public for reporting any animals that may need help. He has been adamant about urging the public not to get too close to animals that may be stranded on the beach.
“People need to remember that these are wild creatures and they deserve respect,” he said.
One cause that Wallerstein has been highly passionate about is building a new local care facility for marine mammals, calling it unacceptable that injured animals have sometimes been left on the beach due to the only other facility in San Pedro being overcrowded. MAR has proposed to construct a state-of-the-art facility at Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey and plans to operate the center under the authority of the Pacific Marine Mammal Care Center in Laguna Beach.
Michele Hunter, director of operations for animal care at the Pacific facility, praised the work of Wallerstein in impacting animals’ lives and said the center looks forward to working with MAR on the new facility.
“Peter’s commitment and dedication to rescuing marine mammals over the last 20 years has given thousands of seals and sea lions a second chance at life,” she said. “Pacific Marine Mammal Center is honored to mentor Peter as he moves into this next stage of establishing his own rehabilitation facility in Los Angeles, and wish him all the best.”
Wallerstein, who is excited to finally be moving forward with his vision, noted that the project has received the backing of celebrities such as Clint Eastwood and Julia Louis Dreyfuss and is currently working on obtaining local permits. He believes that Dockweiler offers a more centralized location for such a facility, as a majority of the rescues occur in the Venice, Playa del Rey and South Bay areas.
“It’s the final piece of my vision I had from the (1980s) when I started this,” he said of the center.
While he ultimately hopes to ensure that his rescue operations can carry on in the future without his involvement, Wallerstein is still as motivated as he was on Day 1 and he doesn’t discount what a career of working with marine animals has provided for him.
“There’s a tremendous satisfaction as a human being and it definitely goes deep. It’s my life,” he said.