A Whale of a Rescue
Peter Wallerstein is the last hope for injured and trapped sea mammals along the SoCal coast
By Barbara Rabinowitz

The mother and baby whale were floundering, both drowning, trapped in hopelessly tangled knots of gill net. They were what the fishing industry would call "collateral damage," caught in the vast, sweeping nets meant for bringing in our nationís dinner. Peter Wallerstein, head of the Whale Rescue Team (WRT), had been called to the scene off the Palos Verdes Peninsula in his 18-foot inflatable and knew he had to do something fast. Struggling to cut the mother loose first, he watched her disappear under his boat, not knowing whether she would capsize him or swim away. Amazingly, she went down and lifted her baby up to the surface for air, again and again, giving Peter access to free her calf. It was a life-changing moment for all three.

"I couldnít have gotten a clearer sign that this is my calling," explains Wallerstein. "Saving such magnificent, once almost-extinct creatures is a privilege. The California grays make the longest documented mammal migration anywhere from Siberian-Alaskan seas to Baja, an average 13,000-mile roundtrip. Iím happy to help them reach their destination."

Since that first rescue in 1984, Wallerstein has dedicated his every waking moment to saving the injured sea creatures along LA countyís very diverse coastline. From San Pedro to Santa Monica, Peter is the man to call whenever whales, sea lions, seals, dolphins and sea birds are in trouble. For 22 years, heís barreled up and down the coast in his specially outfitted truck with the custom-designed, winchable rolling cage inside. His makeshift ambulance, a Ford F-250, is equipped to transport rather large patients not usually found tooling inland. But first, thereís the very big issue of getting wild, hurt, scared creatures to cooperate, to get in the buggy that slides in the truck that goes tearing down the freeway to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro.

Peter describes his rescue work as thoughtful, controlled and precise. But to an outsider, the act of de-netting a distraught sea lion looks more like a Zen version of mud wrestling, often accompanied by mournful barking or honking emanating from the entangled animal. Intensely focused, Wallerstein neither curses nor cajoles. There doesnít appear to be any whispering in his method; just tried and true maneuvering techniques. During a mammal capture, every effort is made to minimize stress on the animal while protecting rescuers. "Ideally, within 15 minutes of arriving on the scene, Iíve secured the beached sea lion or seal and Iím on my way to the rehab center," explains Wallerstein.

Around this time of year, the marine rescuer is kept on the run by sudden epidemics of blooming algaeóa phenomenon that is toxic to sea lions, causing their pups to be stillborn. Naturally growing algae produce a marine biotoxin called domoic acid. Fish eat the algae and sea lions eat the fish. Itís not a new phenomenon. What has changed is that the algae are blooming more often and earlier in the yearójust before the pup birthing season. Some experts blame global warming; others, agricultural run-off.

Wallerstein has little time for blame. Heís too busy rescuing wild, confused sea lions suffering from neurotoxin damage. Off he and his patients go to the rehab center in San Pedro where poisons are flushed and seizures controlled. Wallerstein sadly accepts that not even 50 percent will be saved. What he doesnít want to see is a repeat of 2002, when, at any given time, beaches were covered with 20 or 30 animals having seizures. Hundreds of pregnant sea lions, dolphins and pelicans were imperiled.

For all his backbreaking, life-threatening work, Wallerstein is paid a whopping $1 a year by LA countyóand is not expecting a raise. Each city along the coast kicks in another dollar. "Guess itís obvious, Iím not in this for the money," Wallerstein points out with a wry smile that lights up his tanned, lined face framed by trailing locks of graying, sun-bleached hair.

Former owner of a home in Topanga, Peter now resides in a small, cozy RV camped at Dockweiler Beach near Playa del Reyóthe quicker to spring to assist an animal in need. Peter takes his rescued dog Pumpkin on all runs while his rescued cat TC (Trailer Cat) mans the home front. On call day and night, Peter may get 60 calls in a 24-hour period during extreme emergencies. In 2005, Peter and his Whale Rescue Team rescued 264 sea mammals and over 240 sea birds.

It comes as no surprise that Wallerstein puts his mouth where his heart is and is a total vegan. Heís also adamantly opposed to turning sea mammals into entertainers, or treating them like trainable pets. "The animals seen in our oceans and on our beaches are wild and should be treated that way," he points out. "If you see what appears to be a distressed sea mammal, tell a lifeguard or call me. Donít try to give your kid a ride on its back."

Today, Wallersteinís most pressing concern is establishing a 24-hour Auxiliary Marine Mammal Care Center. If the present LA rehab facilities for mammals and birds are full or closed, then marine life is left to suffer, die or be euthanized by federal authorities. Injured dolphins have no place to go in the entire county.

But in addition to being physically and mentally demanding work, rescuing marine mammals is all consuming. The patients donít always fit their life-threatening traumas into an 8-to-5 schedule, and working up to 17 hours a day leaves Wallerstein little time to tend to daily necessities, let alone find corporate and individual sponsors to help raise the funds needed to expand WRTís breadth of care.

Wallerstein canít take matters under advisement, assemble a blue-ribbon committee or appoint a task force. Heís itóa rolling one-man, one-truck, one-transport cage, marine life-saving force of nature along the LA county coastline, and heís a wonder to behold. Itís his life. Holding up his bulging, tattered rescue log, Wallerstein says simply, "Itís all here. Whatever Iíve done that matters is right here."

To find out how you can help save local marine life, visit whalerescueteam.org or call Peter Wallerstein at 310.455.2729 for non-emergencies or 1.800.39.WHALE for rapid emergency response.