With record numbers of malnourished sea lions reported along Southern California beaches in recent months, Peter Wallerstein who heads the non-profit Marine Animal Rescue is busier than he has been in three decades.
“It’s one of the worst years ever,” said Wallerstein, who founded the group in 1985.
Where last year at around this time he rescued about 75 sea lions, this year he and his partner Dean Gomersall have rescued more than 220. The same is reflected across the state with the Associated Press reporting1,650 sea lions having been rescued in California so far this year.
If the pups are strong enough, Wallerstein releases them on a beach in Palos Verdes. If not, he takes them to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, one of the few rehab centers without a rescue group. The only problem is there are just too many sick and dying sea lion pups to keep up with.
Peter Wallerstein, founder of Marine Animal Rescue, has performed more than double the number of sea lion rescues so far this year. Photo by Westside People
On a recent morning, we traveled with the group in one of two pickup trucks. In the bed were animal crates and everything they need to perform a safe rescue by land or by sea. Not one to shy from media attention, Wallerstein had just finished an interview with NBC Nightly News earlier that morning, and a local CBS cameraman was along for the ride.
On this day they carried five sea lions. One was released in Palos Verdes, three went to the rehab center and one died along the way. With a limit on bringing no more than three sea lions to the rescue center per day, Wallerstein is forced to let go many calls as his phone rings off the hook – a sick pup under Santa Monica Pier, another in Venice Beach.
“It’s dire,” he said. “And it’s sad that we have to let them go a lot of times because normally we’d bring them right into the rehab center. But now we have to delay that because we’re bringing in too many.”
Today Wallerstein is looking for $2 million for a rehab center of his own, a place to temporarily treat sea lions and get them off the beach.
“I just need a couple of people to donate and I can get this thing going,” he said.
Like other experts, he believes warmer water temperatures forced the sea lions’ food source further out to sea and deeper so the mothers had trouble finding food. When they took longer to return to their Channel Islands breeding ground, the pups left and were not weaned long enough. Wallerstein stressed no one should attempt a sea lion rescue on their own.
“They have a bite 10 times greater than a pit bull and their mouth is the dirtiest mouth of any mammal so you don’t want to get bit by them,” he said.
Peter Wallerstein with partner Dean Gomersall release a sea lion to a location better suited for its survival. Photo by Westside People
How it started
Back in 1984 Wallerstein was the Pacific Director for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society when he saw a news program about whales getting trapped in gill nets.
“I thought it must be in the Bering Sea or something, but it was right off Palos Verdes and Point Dume where the gill nets were laid and during whale migration they would get tangled and drowned,” he said. “And I found out there was no coordinated effort to try to free them so I bought a little boat and some knives and scuba gear and told everybody I was going to try to respond to these animals.”
For his first rescue he and some friends had quite the experience. Responding to a whale and her baby tangled in fishing net off Palos Verdes, they quickly freed the mother but the baby was still tangled and couldn’t breathe. When the mother dove to one side of the boat, he didn’t know what was going to happen.
What she did next changed his life as she lifted her baby out of the water so it could breathe and they cut the net away. She did that six times, never touched their boat, and allowed them to cut all the net way.
“That was a sign to me that maybe this is what I should be doing,” Wallerstein said. “Instead of international projects going around the world, maybe I should focus on what’s local. And the more I looked into it I saw the need and how all the marine mammals needed help right in my backyard.”
At that time, seals and sea lion rescues were handled by animal control and park enforcement officers, and Wallerstein had seen some bad stuff. But without authorization, he risked prosecution under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. So he petitioned each individual city along the Santa Monica Bay coast to become an independent contractor and got it.
For the first 20 years of running the non-profit, Wallerstein never took a pay check. He cashed in his land in Topanga Canyon and moved into a trailer at Dockweiller Beach to keep doing what he loves. In his younger days, Wallerstein was a searcher. He crewed sailboats in South America and the Bahamas, wandered the West Indies and spent a few years living self-sufficiently in a New Hampshire cabin. But it’s rescuing marine animals Wallerstein feels to be his purpose in life.
“It’s just the whole thing about finding your niche. It’s not that I like them more than any other animal. It’s just my niche is here,” he said. “I’m having an effect here. If I wasn’t here it would be back to animal control and park enforcement officers. That’s what keeps me going. I found my niche and I have a positive effect on animals’ lives right now.”