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April/May 2007
The Rescuer
The Satya Interview with Peter Wallerstein

Peter Wallerstein of WRT rescuing elephant seal.
Photo by Branimir Kvartuc/Daily Breeze

Since 1984, the lives of sick, injured and orphaned sea mammals off the California coast have been made a bit better. Peter Wallerstein, an ethical vegetarian for 35 years and vegan for 20, found that he was good at saving their lives.

After spending his youth searching for meaning, Wallerstein founded the Whale Rescue Team, an organization that responds to distressed marine mammals and sea birds along the Pacific coast. They also educate the public on the realities of acquiring and keeping sea mammals for entertainment. Kymberlie Adams Matthewshad a chance to talk with Peter Wallerstein about the harmful effects that fishing, pollution and captivity have on marine life.

Can you talk about how your experiences led to the Whale Rescue Team?
Well, I was kind of a lost soul for many years. As a young boy in the 70s, I just traveled around looking for my niche while trying to live a positive meaningful life. I spent time on a small island, then a couple years living self sufficiently in a little cabin on top of a mountain in New Hampshire. I eventually set sail out in the West Indies and South America, where I really had a chance to connect with marine life. But still, it just wasn’t enough.

Then in the early 80s I heard about Paul Watson and Sea Shepherd. I contacted them and a week later I was appointed Director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. I found myself coordinating campaigns against pirate vessels and driftnet vessels and even aboard a ship in the Bering Sea confronting the Japanese driftnet throwers, who were laying thousands of miles of nets, killing a quarter million whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions and sea birds as “incidental kill” every year.

Then one night at home—I was living in Southern California at the time—I was watching a news program about whales drowning in fishing nets. I thought they were talking about the Bering Sea. But then I realized the place they were talking about was only 10 miles from where I was living! I said, “Wait a minute, this is in my own backyard.” So I began looking into it and found that dozens of whales were drowning in fishing nets off the coast of California during their migration and nobody was doing anything about it. Occasionally lifeguards would try to help out, but there was no coordinated effort. I thought that was just wrong and so I purchased this little 18-foot boat and with no reference books or instruction on how to save 50-foot whales, I went to sea.

And that’s how the Whale Rescue Team began?
Pretty much. One of my first calls was a whale stuck in a fishing net. I went out in our small boat with two other people. But when we got there I was totally taken aback. A mother and her baby were wrapped up in this huge net. I didn’t have time to go, “Oh my god, what do I do? Who do I call?” They were drowning right in front of me and we had to take action. We cut the mother out as she was easier to reach, but we couldn’t get to the baby. Every time she tried to come up for air, she was pulled back under by the weight of the net. I was just watching her drown. I could feel the mother’s tension and didn’t know what she was going to do once we started working with the baby. Only two species of whales have ever attacked boats and killed people, the sperm whale and the California gray whale, which is who we were dealing with. Then she swam to one side of our little boat and dove right underneath it. I told the crew to hold on tight, I didn’t know what to expect. But then she came up on the other side, never even touching the boat, and lifted her baby out of the water so she could breathe. She did this repeatedly, allowing us to cut the baby free. It was such joy to watch them swim away.

I took that as a sign. I would have been really dumb not to have. So my focus changed to raising the standards of marine care in my community.

How did the community react? I heard you are paid only $1 a year for your services.
Unfortunately, the system was so entrenched by good old boys who thought everything was all right, and didn’t need changing. They wondered who I was, this local activist coming in and touching these animals, like, “Who gives him the authority to do what he’s doing?” Basically, I worked under the threat of prosecution for a decade, but I just kept on doing it. Finally, I found a way to offer my services to the local government. I said, “I’ll provide these services, plus the million dollar insurance policy and I’ll only charge you one dollar a year.” So that was that. I didn’t care about the money; I just wanted to help these animals. The rescues are very difficult and challenging but this is what I am good at. I have never had anyone injured in 22 years of rescue. And I have only been bitten once…in the arm by a suffering pregnant sea lion.

Many of the animals you rescue are harmed by the fishing industry. Can you discuss this?
Humans are definitely responsible for most of my victims. They are still laying fishing nets off the coast of California and animals still drown in them. Those able to fight their way out still have net remnants wrapped around their head and neck, eventually causing them to die from strangulation or infection. Just last year, this poor sea lion pup had yards of gull netting tangled around his neck, and he had somehow trapped himself on a bell buoy outside King Harbor in Redondo Beach. Baywatch lifeguards contacted me and we set out to save him. The water was really swelling and the boat bouncing like a toy as we tried to reach the seal. But we just couldn’t get close enough. To make things worse, the pup kept trying to jump off the buoy into the water, but was only pulling the nylon cord tighter around his neck. Finally, we were able to rescue him by jumping on the slippery buoy ourselves. We brought him into rehab and two months later he was released.

We see fishing entanglements all the time, as well as fishing hooks in the mouth, eye sockets, etc. Last June, a harbor seal pup swallowed two hooks cast by an angler fishing off the end of Manhattan Beach pier. The angler proceeded to reel the pup 40 feet up and onto the pier. We were able to rescue him. An x-ray later found one hook was actually caught in his esophagus.

Another cause of harm is pollution. Can you talk about domoic acid, where it comes from and what effect it has on the animals?
Since 2002, we have had a dramatic increase in domoic acid [a naturally occurring marine biotoxin produced by algae]. When there is a significant algae bloom, which has happened every spring for the last several years, a concentrate of poisonous acid is created. It’s likely that run-off from animal agriculture and the broader effects of global warming trigger these increasingly potent blooms. Scientists know that pollution feeds these algae blooms and is actually changing the marine environment.

While the toxin doesn’t bother the fish, once mammals eat the fish, within 30 minutes it becomes a neurotoxin in their bodies and starts exploding in their brains. And because pregnant lions eat more and since the bloom happens in the spring, it devastates the population. We see them come up on the beach to have their pups prematurely. Some are stillborn, others alive. And all the while you just watch as the mothers’ heads swing violently back and forth because the toxins are exploding. They begin to foam from their mouths, the whites of their eyes turn bloody red and usually within 24 hours they are paralyzed. In the spring of 2005, I rescued 89 sea lions with domoic acid poisoning in one month.

This toxin causes so much suffering. In all my years of rescue I have never seen the distress on the face of an animal like a sea lion suffering from this poisoning. Dozens of dolphins and pelicans also suffer from attacks to their brains and nervous systems.

We have birds falling from the sky. Just this last year, this Brazilian guy came up to me and said, “You should have seen it! I was riding my bike when all of a sudden this thing fell onto my head!” It was a pelican sitting there in a daze, head waving back and forth, suffering from domoic poisoning. I was able to rescue the pelican and make the man feel better by telling him he actually saved the bird’s life by cushioning his fall.

[Laughter.] I remember asking him, “Doesn’t this happen in Brazil? ’Cause it happens here all the time.” You have got to have a sense of humor. When you are doing this line of work and dealing with such tragic things you have to find humor in it to stay sane. I mean, I am already a basket case. But if I didn’t have a sense of humor I’d be back in my cabin on the mountain.

[Laughter.] I hear you, laughter is the best medicine… So domoic poisoning, is it fatal?
No. Not if I get them in time. If they get flushed out and well hydrated, many of them recover well enough to be released back into the wild. It’s not all lost. But others, even if they recover, we’re finding they can’t always survive on their own.

Where do the animals go after you rescue them? Do you have a rehabilitation center?
I don’t and that is a whole other story. While we have made a huge difference in marine wildlife rescue, I am still struggling to try and open up an auxiliary marine care center in our area. Once again the good ol’ boys in government and unfortunately the only other marine care center, are fighting my efforts. The other center is so limited. Once they fill up with sick animals in the spring they close their doors, which means I have to sometimes leave suffering animals on the beach. And with whales and dolphins, forget about it. Marine rescuers are actually told by the National Marine Fisheries Service that if a whale larger than 20 feet strands along the coastline, rescuers should tow the whale back out and make no attempt at a rescue. The volunteers here are wonderful, but there just needs to be more.

The Whale Rescue Team also has an anti-capture campaign, especially focusing on commercial aquariums. In your opinion, what’s wrong with places like Sea World?
[Laughter.] What isn’t wrong? They exploit marine animals. They capture animals from the wild, separating them from their families. You have to understand, these are highly social animals living in an acoustic world with sounds. They swim 40 to 100 miles a day. To grab them and put them in a concrete tank where they have to shut off their acoustic sensory because it keeps bouncing off the walls, is just wrong. These are places where they are taught to do tricks by food deprivation. A place where they are dying of ulcers and heart problems and stress-related issues. They can live 40 years in the wild, but they live less than 12 years in captivity. For orcas it is even worse. The idea of keeping any animal in captivity is just wrong, but with marine mammals...

Plus many captive facilities support and subsidize the drive kill in Japan where fishermen use giant nets to drive hundreds of animals onto the beach and then allow aquariums from around the world to pick out the pretty ones to buy and the fishermen slaughter the rest.

The public is also really deceived by places like Sea World. People watch the trainers go up and kiss the 400-pound sea lion on the lips and give it a fish. But then people try to do these things on the beach with suffering animals. People put their children on sea lions having seizures trying to take pictures. They put bagels in their mouths and try to pull them back into the water. I mean, it is just amazing what we have to deal with.

You also had to deal with Shedd Aquarium.
Yeah. In 1993, the local Shedd Aquarium announced they were going to capture dolphins off the California coast. We had about eight months before Shedd’s capture permit expired. Eight months to try to stop them. I immediately called a press conference and announced we would try to stop the capture before it happened. And that if we couldn’t, we’d launch a flotilla of boats and airplanes to confront them. Shedd officials knew from my history that I wasn’t bluffing. My plan was to put pressure on Shedd and the governmental agencies that allow and support these captures. In the past, feds have granted 99.4 percent of all applications to capture marine mammals.

It came to the point where we did have to hire a helicopter and put boats out. I had about 25,000 square miles to try and find where the capture was going to take place. The producers of Free Willy actually gave me their boat to use as the base of operation. But I got the dreaded news that Shedd succeeded in capturing the dolphins. We had missed them by less than 10 miles. To say we were devastated is an understatement. I’ve been doing this work a long time and defeats don’t get any easier. But you have to get up and keep fighting. We weren’t successful in blocking them but we sent a message to the industry. I doubt that Shedd or any other aquarium will think about coming to California or anywhere in the U.S. and try to capture a dolphin again. So in the big picture, it had a tremendous effect, but it hurt. Ten miles. Even with all they did to hide that capture from us, we still got that close. And we were just a bunch of ragtag volunteers.

Did footage for the documentary A Fall From Freedom come out of that experience?
Yes. We actually worked with filmmaker Stan Minasian, who made Free Willy, on the production and distribution. A Fall From Freedom exposes the dark side of the captive industry led by Sea World and its owner Anheuser-Busch. It shows them capturing orcas and separating mothers and babies by throwing explosives into the water.

How can people help out?

Money. We do it all for a dollar a year. We are not a big machine and I don’t have a staff. I am fundraising when I am not rescuing, but that’s really not in my blood. I have to do it to keep this going. We have a neat thing where before a rescue I take pictures of the animal to send to our e-mail list. I go out with a net in one hand and a camera in the other and people who support us get e-mail updates right after a rescue.

Also, people should not to go to Sea World.

And obviously, become vegan. That would help stop the fishing industries from exploiting the ocean. That is the best way to help—don’t eat fish.

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