When a dying California brown pelican ended up on award-winning television news journalist Jane Velez-Mitchell’s doorstep, she was led into the world of Peter Wallerstein.
Wallerstein is the founder of the longstanding Whale Rescue Team — a nonprofit agency that specializes in the humane rescue of marine mammals and birds from Malibu down to Palos Verdes.
For the past 22 years, Wallerstein has almost single-handedly rescued many of Santa Monica Bay’s ailing sea lions, harbor seals, pelicans, dolphins and whales that find themselves in precarious positions related to unintentional interactions with human beings.
“I was so moved by how quickly he responded,” said Velez-Mitchell, of the brown pelican rescue. “We became friends. I learned that his truck had more than 250,000 miles on it. One day, the transmission was broken and another day the brakes were going, and so on.
“And he’s doing all this for a dollar a year. That’s what he charges the county. A lot of times people who do this kind of amazing work don’t promote themselves because it’s not in their nature, and that’s the way he is.”
Wallerstein does indeed charge the various Los Angeles County agencies one dollar a year for the service of handling these unique emergency situations and he is the only person in the area that has the knowledge, experience and expertise on how to approach these often-dangerous scenarios.
In 22 years and thousands of rescues, Wallerstein has been bitten only once and has developed methods, equipment and processes made specifically for the species of animal and unusual circumstances he often encounters.
“I’ve developed techniques that make the rescues safer for the animals and for the rescuers,” said Wallerstein.
Of the astonishing record of only one bite in all those years Wallerstein said, “That’s due to technique, equipment and respect for the animals that I’m rescuing.”
The Whale Rescue Team was established in 1984 after Wallerstein returned from the Bering Sea, where he was protesting what he considered immoral commercial fishing practices as director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization founded by the originators of Greenpeace.
While watching a news program about whales drowning in fishing nets, he realized that the event was happening locally in Palos Verdes.
Wallerstein had been traveling the world protesting and fighting for the protection of marine life, but now felt a calling to remain close to home.
“I looked into it and found that dozens of whales were drowning during the migration when the nets were laid off of Palos Verdes,” Wallerstein said. “Right off the point, where they travel.
“Nobody was going out and responding. Lifeguards could, occasionally, but there was no solid effort to go out and find the animals, so that’s when I started. That’s why it’s called the Whale Rescue Team.”
Wallerstein describes his first rescue, when he saved a mother gray whale and her calf that were both tangled in fishing net and drowning.
He freed the mother first, as she was more accessible, but the calf was still caught in the net, desperate for air.
Wallerstein describes the anxious moments of being in an 18-foot boat as the massive mother whale, who was on the other side of the boat, dove underneath them to tend to her offspring.
“We thought, ‘Oh man, what’s gonna happen?’ There have been only two species of whale that have turned on whalers — the sperm and the California gray,” Wallerstein said. “And this would be a good reason for her to do that. But she didn’t. She came up on the other side and lifted her baby a half a dozen times so it could breathe. That gave us a chance to cut the net, and they both swam away.”
It was this experience that pointed Wallerstein in the direction that would carve the rest of his life.
While the thousands of rescues that would follow didn’t all end so happily, he realized that he had found what he was meant to do.
“I thought, maybe this is what I’m good at,” Wallerstein said.
Today, the Whale Rescue Team works with all the local public safety agencies and Wallerstein has become an expert on how to handle any situation, regardless of how unusual.
When Wallerstein began, there were no references, but now he has “written the book.” Currently, he trains animal control officers, marine rescuers from around the world and he is developing a training DVD.
With all this achievement, the Whale Rescue Team, like so many nonprofit benevolent organizations, still struggles with funding.
Wallerstein is, for all practical purposes, a one-man show doing rescues every day of the week and he has little time for promotion and fundraising.
But with the recent help of Velez-Mitchell, the Whale Rescue Team will be holding a fundraising event that they hope will generate some much needed money to help Wallerstein upgrade his equipment and possibly get a new truck.
“I said, ‘Let’s do a fundraiser for you so that everyone in the community that loves these animals can get involved, and if everyone helps out a little bit, maybe we can get the organization a new truck or something’,” Velez-Mitchell said. “It’s a pretty expensive proposition, but maybe some wonderful dealership out there will hear about this and help with that.”
The “Rescue Me” fundraiser will be held from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, December 2nd, at the epOxybOx Gallery, 602 Venice Blvd., at the intersection of Venice and Abbot Kinney Boulevards, Venice.
Tickets are $20, available at the art gallery’s door. Reservations, (310) 455-2729.
Hosted by Wallerstein, Velez-Mitchell, Deborah Guyer Greene, Kris Kelly and Lena Nozizwe, the fundraiser will feature live music, vegan cuisine, a hosted bar, a raffle, a silent auction and limited-edition rescue-themed art.
Entertainment is to be provided by Brittney Elizabeth, Clive Kennedy, Sky & The Vegan Vixens and Themba Sound Design.
Sponsors are the Karl Strauss Brewing Company, Vine Connections, Melissa’s World Variety Produce, One World Vegetarian Cuisine and Veg-o-rama.
“What I love about this is that you can sometimes give money to an organization and it goes into some fund where there’s overhead and offices or whatever, but there’s none of that here,” said Velez-Mitchell. “This money goes directly to rescues.
“It goes right into the truck, the boxes, the nets or whatever else is needed.”
Information, the Whale Rescue Team Web site, www.whale rescueteam.org or (310) 455-2729 for non-emergencies.
For marine mammal or sea bird emergencies, (800) 399-4253 (800-39-WHALE).