Power Plant Basin Rescue

Sea Lion Rescued from Power Plant Basin with Help from DWP

By Peter Wallerstein

The vast majority of the seals and sea lions that inadvertently swim up into the power plant basin do not survive the long, dark and turbulent journey. This is the story of one of the few that did survive and the rescue efforts led by the Marine Animal Rescue (MAR) with support from the Department of Water and Power (DWP). If the rescue efforts failed or we had not acted, the sea lion would have succumbed to hypothermia in the cold, turbulent waters of the concrete holding basin where dozens of others have perished.

On April 12th, DWP workers found a large sea lion in the cooling basin of the Scattergood Power Plant. DWP personnel have been successful in the past in removing trapped seals and sea lions from the basin, in fact, MAR volunteers have assisted in some of those rescues. But, this animal was just too much for DWP to handle and after a week of failed rescue efforts, Ruth, a DWP employee, out of her concern for the animal, contacted the MAR for assistance on Friday the 22nd.

When I arrived at the Power Plant, I observed the sea lion swimming about in the 40×60 foot basin. This basin holds pumped in ocean water used for cooling the plant. One ladder provided the only access, running straight down the 40-foot sheer basin wall to the turbulent, 40-foot deep waters below. The ladder offered no landing places as it submerged into the depths of the basin. This rescue was going to be very challenging to say the least.

The bewildered animal didn’t have much time. The constantly moving basin waters in the basin provided no place for the sea lion to haul out to rest and warm his body. Hypothermia, fatigue and heavy stress were serious threats to this sea lion. Also, periodically the Power plant heats up the basins waters, killing all the marine life in and around the basin and filtering areas. The sea lion would certainly not survive such a dramatic rise in water temperature. We had to get this animal out quickly.

In my 20 years of experience as a marine wildlife rescue specialist, I had never faced a rescue this challenging. Usually, during beach or jetty rescues, rescuers have multiple techniques available but now, our choices were severely restricted. We couldn’t take the chance on tranquilizing the sea lion. If the sea lion fell unconscious without closing his nostrils, he’d drown, inhaling water into his lungs. MAR’s Veterinarian Jennifer Conrad advised that tranquilizing would be too risky for the animal and should only be used as a last resort. All I was sure of was that all rescue efforts must be well thought out, not rushed and, of course, safety had to be the first consideration.

I observed the sea lion’s behavior for some time, trying to evaluate his condition. If he had been in a critical state we would have had to take drastic action. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. He was strong, but I knew he hadn’t eaten for days. I was concerned about dehydration and hypothermia. So, to ensure he ate and was receiving adequate fluids I began feeding him fresh fish.

10 days before MAR was contacted, DWP workers had lowered a floating cage they keep on site for such incidents into the basin. Although this technique has worked in the past with other sea lions, they were unsuccessful in capturing this one in the cage. I knew if he was hungry enough he would go after live bait. I decided to go to the bait dock in Marina del Rey to get some fish to try to lure him into the cage. Even if the sea lion was hungry or cold, he could easily lift his body into the open cage to grab some fish or, at least, rest. I arrived back with the fish and began feeding the sea lion by throwing the fish near him into the basin. He wasted know time and immediately began eating the fish and looking up at me for more when he finished the pervious one. Then, I threw some fish into the cage to try to lure him in. Cautiously, he stuck his head in and grabbed one fish at a time, moving deeper and deeper into the cage. A couple of times he got his fore-flippers up in the cage and it looked like we might get him. But as he lifted his tired body partially out of the water I realized just how large this animal was. It didn’t take me long to see that this technique could not work for a sea lion of his size. The floating cage was about 5 ft. in length and the male California sea lion was about 6 ft and 400 pounds. To successfully shut the door behind the animal, his entire body would have to be in the cage

Unfortunately, the cage door hit him in the butt a couple of times and scared him away. After that, he never got close to entering the cage again, even for food. We had to come up with another plan.

Our next effort was to place a large, deep mesh basket in the water. Lines were attached to each corner and then to the crane. Our plan was to get the sea lion to swim into the large submerged cage to get the fish, then pull the basket up with the distracted sea lion still in it. That didn’t work either. The cables that were attached to the cage frightened the sea lion. He got nowhere near it.

When discussing our next plan with DWP personnel Bob Vandervort, I mentioned that we might have to utilize divers for the next rescue attempt. Bob suggested that I speak with Frank, another DWP worker who is the contact for Blackledge Diving, a company contracted by DWP for underwater welding and construction. I asked Frank if Blackledge could also bring along one of their small boats. First, I thought if we could lower the boat into the basin we’d have a work platform closer to the animal. Second, and more importantly, I was hoping that the sea lion would use the boat to warm and rest his tired, cold body. In the wild, sea lions can regulate their body temperature by floating on their sides with their flipper exposed to the sunlight. If that doesn’t warm them enough, the pinnipeds will haul out on the beach or on rock jetties, anywhere they can get out of the water and warm their entire bodies. But, trapped in the deep concrete basin, this wayward sea lion hadn’t had anywhere to haul out for over 10 days. If he would just get on the boat it would allow him to rest and warm his large, thick body and give the rescuers a bit more time to conduct this challenging rescue successfully. Time was running out; we had no time to waste.

Later that day, when the divers and the boat arrived we immediately hoisted the boat into the basin and tied it off securely. The curious sea lion wasted no time in checking the boat out. With cautious excitement, a couple of hours later we found him on the boat sleeping, resting comfortably. This was a turning point for this rescue effort.

I noticed he had a favorite resting spot on the boat and I came up with a new plan. The 16-foot boat was tied securely against one wall of the basin. It was about a 40-foot drop from the top of the basin where we were, to the vessel below. If we were to bring in some food and lure the hungry sea lion off the boat for a short time, we could then lay a large piece of netting down the concrete wall and across the boat covering the area where we knew he’d most likely lay. If he returned to the boat and laid on the net, each rescue team member could pull on the rope lines attached to the netting below, pulling up the net and enclosing the startled sea lion. We would have to work fast and also disguise the net and rope lines so they wouldn’t discourage the sea lion from jumping back on the boat. Bob happened to have a large piece of netting that was perfect for the task at hand. If we snagged the net or line on something, things could go seriously wrong. But, we needed to give it a shot. Time was running out.

Bob retrieved the net and we began to implement our next plan. We lured the rested sea lion off the boat with some fish and carefully positioned the netting. All the pulling lines that ran up the wall to the rescuers were marked to distinguish them from all the other necessary lines. If one line wasn’t pulled, that could keep this rescue attempt from being successful. We also used a stronger net that we laid on top of the larger net that covered the boat. The stronger net was attached to the boom and would be used to hoist the sea lion up and out of the 40-foot basin. When we finished laying the net I requested that all rescuers and DWP personnel leave the basin area.

It was critical that we let the sea lion get acclimated to the new additions without being disturbed. We all left hoping that we hadn’t frightened the sea lion from returning to rest on the boat.

We would monitor the sea lion throughout the night.

It was impossible for me to sleep much that night. My mind was going over each and every possible scenario, trying to prepare myself as best I could for anything we might face the next day. I was also already developing new rescue techniques if this one failed. At 6 AM the next morning I was alerted by DWP that the sea lion was in position, laying right where we had hoped he’d be.

I arrived on the scene in about 10 minutes and found the sleeping sea lion with most of his body on the net. The only problem was his tail hung over approximately 2 feet off the netting. Those 2 feet could have kept us from conducting a successful rescue. There was little margin for error. If we pulled fast enough and the lines didn’t snag on anything and we caught him off guard and the nets held fast and… All the variables kept running through my head. Everything had to line up perfectly.

With everyone in position, including the sea lion, I gave the go ahead to pull. Within seconds the black larger net surrounded the stunned sea lion and halted his retreat. Bob began pulling the lines attached to the stronger net attached to the boom lines. Immediately I noticed that the hoisting net had slipped, leaving the struggling sea lion hanging, but securely, in the black net. Pete from Blackledge and I scrambled down the ladder to reconfigure the hoisting net. We were kept vividly aware of the dangers of working with an angry sea lion as it thrashed around, desperately trying to escape his predicament. A sea lion this big would certainly break and arm as it slashes the flesh with its large, sharp, penetrating teeth. Fortunately, the black net held fast and we easily placed the hoisting net in the right position under him. He sure looked bigger up close! We gave the signal for Bob to start hoisting again. The crane pulled and the sea lion began his trip to freedom, rising out of the basin that had held him captive for well over a week.

My plan was to put the sea lion into WRT’s pinniped cage and transport him directly to the beach for immediate release. That was easier said than done.

After we got the sea lion out of the basin we placed him on the concrete surface to remove most of the net that we had used to capture the big boy. He was strong, healthy and had a lot of fight in him. That was a good sign and reassured me I was making the right decision to release him to the ocean ASAP. As with all WRT’s pinniped rescues, I restricted the number of rescuers that were allowed near the sea lion’s mouth. A sea lion this large can cause a very, very serious bite and I wasn’t going to let that happen. Pete McCracken from Blackledge and I worked around the head while Trent, another diver from Blackledge began to cut the net. DWP personnel including the plant manager John Vallow were there to lend their critical support. John’s support came early telling me “WRT had DWP’s complete support in this effort”.

After a short struggle we got the big boy into the aluminum transportation cage and slowly winched it up on the MAR rescue truck for the short 5 minute trip to the beach.

Before the release, we needed to remove all of the remaining net the sea lion had wrapped around his entire body. The only way to remove the net was by reaching into the cage with the struggling animal. The only one that I would risk doing that was me. After about 10 minutes of cautiously reaching in and removing piece by piece, he was finally free from all the netting and was ready to be released back to the sea.

I moved the rescuers and the many media representatives back behind the cage so they wouldn’t interfere with the sea lion’s path to freedom. We opened the cage door. It didn’t take long for young sea lion to stick his head out of the cage that was located at the shore’s edge. His first few steps were cautious. He looked back once, with a bewildered but excited look on his face, and then sprinted into the surf, never looking back again.

MAR has already conducted 106 marine mammal rescues in 2005. We average about 175 marine mammal rescues each year. As marine rescuers we do our very best for each and every animal. Most of animals we rescue go directly to the marine mammal rehabilitation center. Due to various aliments and injuries, rarely do we ever get a chance to release an animal immediately back to the sea. This rescue allowed us to go full circle with the animal. It was as rewarding and satisfying as it was challenging.

That big, magnificent, specimen of a male California sea lion will remain in our memories for a very long time.