By Peter Wallerstein
(In memory of John Heyning, Bertram McCann and Kelly Shea)
In the beginning of the story the whale is called Marina. This was the name the rescuers named her before she was named J.J.
On Friday morning, January 10, 1997 at about 8:30 AM the Whale Rescue Team received a call from Lieutenant Morrow of the Los Angeles County Fire Department-Lifeguards. The lieutenant and I had worked together in the past. He was calling this time about a baby California gray whale beached in Marina Del Rey, California. The lieutenant informed me that lifeguards were standing by on the scene. I told him my estimated time of arrival to the scene was about 30 minutes. I arrived on scene to see a small whale in the surf line. The lifeguards informed me that the whale had already beached once. They assisted the whale back out into the surf. The small whale was swimming erratically. It was obvious to me it was confused and upset. No wonder, three days old and already without a mother it must depend on emotionally and physically for many months. The whale will nurse for months and without that food and nurturing will surely die within days.
If possible, the first choice is always return the animal to the wild before we have to stress it out during the rescue, transportation, and rehabilitation. For many years inadequate communications has been a serious problem with the stranding network in our area. Some decisions must be made now. We had to start looking for its mother! Once the whale beached itself again the county lifeguards and I tried to stabilize it but we had too much difficulty and also we didn’t know when the NMFS, those in care of the stranding network, would arrive. So we made the decision to push it back to deeper water. This was better than it rolling on the beach, getting its blowhole buried in the sand waiting until who knows when. We couldn’t stand by and do nothing. So out to sea it went. This also bought us more time. This was just the beginning of a long ordeal. We stood by and monitored the young whale from shore while Shelley in the Bay Watch boat cruised off shore in case we needed him. I was there at least an hour or so when John, a representative from the county museum arrived. In the 1980s most of WHALE RESCUE TEAM’s rescues were specialized ocean rescues, mother and baby whales entangled in fishing nets, whales with buoys coming out one end of their mouths, trailing many yards of rope with a lobster or crab pot at the end.
This whale looked quite strong at times swimming further off the beach. I decided to take the Whale Rescue Team’s boat out to meet the Bay Watch boat and monitor the young whale from the ocean. So I proceeded to launch the boat and headed out to Marina Del Rey channel. On the way I picked up Don, a representative from the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort Mac Arthur, which is also part of the stranding network. Don and I had met in the past when I was delivering injured sea lions to the now shut down Marineland. He used to capture marine mammals for aquariums. He knows very well my view on that. I put all differences aside because we had a confused weak baby whale looking for its mom that needed our help and time was running out. For a couple of hours WHALE RESCUE TEAM’s boat, Terry Tamminen on the Baykeeper vessel and Shelley in the BAY WATCH boat looked for mom. Shelley and I launched air reconnaissance of the area using a Coast Guard helicopter and Marika Tur was in News Copter 2. We had fishing boats, whale watch boats, Terry T. and others searching a seven-mile area for any signs of mom or other whales. If left in the wild without adult whales the baby would surely die, especially because Sea World refused to send aid.
We continued the search for any signs of the mother. Hours of searching went by and knowing the consequences of failing made it more critical and intense. There were times when I was on the WHALE RESCUE TEAM’s boat keeping other boats clear of the baby I’ll now call Marina(JJ). Marina would come up to embrace and caress the boat, reaching out for contact, food and nurturing. I felt so helpless I did feel her presence her feelings very clearly. This was a tough one. Marina would swim away and come back. She nuzzled the rocks on the breakwater, looking for something familiar in her short life.
When John and Don were on board the WHALE RESCUE TEAM’s boat it was obvious they knew Sea World did not want Marina. In fact, the idea was coldly turned down. Sea World refused to send a rescue truck or any help what so ever! I think that’s why Don looked so confused… he knew SeaWorld didn’t want the baby whale and his facility couldn’t handle it. Word from NMFS was “hands off.” Sea World never showed up at the rescue. Sea World doesn’t want to take in anything they can’t potentially keep for display and exploitation. Gray whales get too big to keep in captivity, Sea World was very aware of this. They just spent 10 million dollars on a tank for captive Orca whales, they didn’t want a stranded gray whale in it.
Calls were made to the media and the story continued to grow every hour. Sea World had to cave in. I’ll put my differences aside and work with them to ensure the best chance possible for Marina or any sick or injured marine mammal.
The massive effort for a potential reunion continued. Getting close to sundown Terry R., who called himself NMFS’s number-one man for stranding response showed up 8 hours late. I knew from the start he was over his head in this one. N.M.F.S. put this on his shoulders and that wasn’t fair to the rescue effort. National Marine Fisheries Service head office for the Southwest Region is less than 1 hour away. No one ever showed up. All night reconnaissance was arranged with the help of private citizens and the Santa Monica Baykeeper, Terry T.. If beached, we’d know immediately. I went home for awhile and spent most of the time worrying. At dawn we proceeded to launch the WHALE RESCUE TEAM boat and join the search for Marina. We found her with the help of some media representatives. Marina was swimming aimlessly inside the Marina Del Rey channel. Terry R. had a difficult time making decisions. That was very frustrating to me and others involved. Over the years Shelley and other Lifeguards from Bay Watch have rescued whales from gill nets along the California coast. I also have experience with distressed wild whales, it was hard for us to watch the clock tick away as life ticked away for Marina. Our hands were tied. Critical decisions had to be made. At this point I felt it was time to take over the operation. I did it in a subtle way without interfering with anyone’s work or ego.
After 24 hours of searching for mom we knew it wasn’t to be. So Marina’s only chance was to strand, be rescued, rehabilitated and released. We now knew, SeaWorld was ready. Thinking we’d never be able to do it. SeaWorld said they would except the whale if we brought it down to them, over a three-hour truck ride away. How would we convince the whale to strand? How much time did we have left? Marina kept visiting my boat, rubbing her body gently against the sides of the boat exposing the remains of her umbilical cord on her underside. Coast Guard Auxiliary assisted in keeping boat traffic under control. Bertram McCann, who runs the Charter Connection in the Marina and his boat, joined my boat. Terry T was also with us. Both were invaluable and stayed until the very end. If we didn’t have the Whale Rescue Boat, Bay Watch, the Baykeeper and Bertram this rescue wouldn’t have happened.
Two guys from network ABC joined me on my boat. They were great and actually had to take control of my boat when I jumped into the water. Marina was still having her encounters with us to the excitement of the cameraman, soundman, and myself. Time was going by, we hadn’t heard from Terry R. for 45 minutes. I even had Lifeguards on land tracking him down. No word. Later we found out he was doing interviews. We tried to gently lead Marina into shore. We sped our boats and revved the engines to see how that would affect her, of course, staying a safe distance away from her. Nothing seemed to work. Having not heard of any new plan I decided to enter the water to see if Marina might be attracted to my body my movements. Nothing else worked and I’ve been in the water with distressed whales before, I felt confident that it was the right thing to do. I was about 50 yards away when I entered the water. No significant reaction.
While all this is going on Rima, Whale Rescue Team’s stranding coordinator, volunteered to go find a rental truck somewhere in town to transport Marina in if she strands. The only truck available was the truck the County museum used to pick up dead whales and that wouldn’t do for the 3 hour drive to San Diego. That truck was sitting ominously on the beach that whole day.
After not hearing from Terry R. or John for awhile we were just hoping the plans they came up with were good. The first plan was to put two undersized stretchers between my 18 foot inflatable and Bertram’s 22 foot inflatable. These stretchers had to be hand held and brought under Marina to bring the 1500 pound whale to shore. If both boats were customized for this kind of thing maybe. But this idea was unrealistic. The second plan was to tie a rope off to the swimming whale in order to attach some lifeguard rescue floats on her. That’s as far as they thought that one out. Both had no idea what they were doing and now bad decisions could have serious consequences for both the whale and the rescuers. On the Bertram inflatable boat were Terry R., John and about six lifeguards. I advised Terry R. and John that it wasn’t a good idea to try to attach anything to Marina at this point. I was against this plan from the onset. We tried a couple of times to get close to Marina. After the second attempt I noticed she was heading towards a rock jetty that formed a cove with the beach. This might be our last chance. Shelley on the Bay Watch boat continued to spray water behind Marina while the other boats closed in to form a barrier. We entered the water. That’s when I felt it. Marina surrendered. Swimming between Terry T’s boat and WRT’s boat, she headed for the beach on her own, directly in front of the flatbed truck, the rescuers on the beach dozens of cameras and hundreds of people intently watching the dramatic scene.
Marina beached. She did not struggle a bit. All of us in the water needed some assistance to stabilize and put the undersized dolphin stretchers under Marina. Lifeguards and I called for help and without hesitation a dozen or so Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers entered the water with all their gear on and knelt to help with the rescue. We had some help from others too. A couple of U.S. Attorneys who had been on a bike ride joined in a man from New York who was out here putting his father’s cremations in the Pacific lent a hand. This was truly a volunteer effort. People from all walks of life. It was obvious, due to the lack of rescue equipment that we would have to use what we had available. We were failing with our efforts to carry Marina on the stretchers to the waiting flatbed. Then I noticed some metal loops on the poles holding the main stretchers. We rigged them up to the flatbed’s winch and guided Marina on to the tilted flatbed. It worked. We were all stoked as was the crowd now cheering the efforts. It was inspiring to see the deep concern from so many people, from the lifeguards, to the often unfairly criticized LAPD., to the children lined up on the beach. One child I noticed was clutching his stuffed animal which was a whale or dolphin close to his body… helping in his way.
Rima was there to help after returning with the U-haul. Santa Monica Baykeeper ended up paying for the truck rental and the gas too! We transferred Marina to the rented 24 foot U-haul. We didn’t have adequate foam to cushion her ride. We borrowed some lifeguard rescue floats, towels and buckets to keep Marina wet. Anything that could hold water was used. Neighbors came out and assisted any way they could. I asked the LAPD if they could arrange an escort for the transportation. They escorted it to the 90 freeway and the California Highway Patrol (CHP) escorted the rest of the way to San Diego. Rima drove the baby whale to San Diego. Before they left, when everyone was out of the truck I entered and joined this gentle creature that I had spent two days with. I told her I’ll see her when it is time to set her free into the wild.
Marina is now known as JJ. JJ is now swimming free. I thank the rehabilitation experts at Sea World for the amazing work they did for this baby whale! Let the JJ story act as a symbol to protect our oceans and all of its creatures. Let her story motivate us to increase efforts to rescue rehabilitate and, release back to the wild any marine mammal that we have the ability to assist. Let JJ’s saga also be a lesson to Sea World and the whole captive display industry that THIS IS WHAT THE SHOW SHOULD BE. The rescuing, rehabilitation and release back to the wild of injured or orphaned marine mammals. Not capturing them from the wild, taking them from their families and sentencing them to a shortened, stressed out life in captivity.
We Wish JJ the best.