President & Founder of Marine Animal Rescue Specialists, Inc.
What first strikes people who meet Peter Wallerstein is that he is a doer. More than 20 years before the Ocean Health Index even was conceived, Wallerstein took in the measure of the distressed marine environment around him and went straight to work.
A native of New England, Wallerstein first coordinated international whale protection campaigns in the icy and treacherous waters of the Bering Sea and North Atlantic Ocean. Since that time, he has facilitated over 6,500 rescues of marine animals, including a host of endangered species from Olive Ridley Sea Turtles to Steller Sea Lions.
When he was appointed as the Pacific Director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an international marine wildlife conservation organization established in 1977 to end the destruction of habitats and the slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans, Wallerstein initially entered into a beleaguered relationship with Los Angeles County and City officials who unknowingly were using inappropriate and harmful methods to deal with stranded and trapped marine animals.
But slowly over the years, Peter’s persistent creativity in devising hands-on safe and effective techniques to rescue these animals, and his quick on-site response time in emergency situations overcame the objections of county and city officals. He began to earn respect for his persistence, admiration for his skills, and accolades for his abilities and passionate commitment, all of which eventually turned critics into ardent collaborators.
In 1985, Peter founded the Whale Rescue Team to establish a local skilled response capability for whales in Southern California that were becoming entangled in fishing gill nets, a practice that was eventually banned by the state in 1993 after thousands of marine animals were indiscriminately killed.
As director of the organization, Peter established a live 24-hour toll-free hotline for reporting marine animals trapped or in distress. He then received authorization from local beach authorities to act as first responder and to expand the rescue areas where he and his team could deploy their skills and rapid reaction to whale strandings and entanglements.
Just one such event put Wallerstein, his team, and a beautiful baby gray whale, front and center on the beach and in the media on January 7 of 1997. Peter received a call that day from a lifeguard. A baby grey whale, only a few days old but already 14 feet long, had somehow become separated from its mother and beached itself on the shore near Marina del Rey. Wallerstein and crew were able to return the baby whale to the sea. The baby, however, was in serious distress and unable to find its mother. Peter stayed beside the baby whale for two entire days while an intensive search for its mother was undertaken.
To give the baby the best opportunity of survival as possible after two days of fruitlessly searching for its mother, Peter and his volunteers began the difficult attempt to slowly nudge the baby towards shore. Hours of intense negotiation with SeaWorld in San Diego ensued before the company decided to take in the baby whale for rehabilitation. But, of course, there was a catch: SeaWorld would take the baby whale only if it were delivered to their doorstep in San Diego.
Once the whale was safe and in a sling, surfers, police in uniform, and average citizens jumped knee-deep into the surf to help lift the almost 17-hundred-pound whale onto one of the transport trucks. By this time, hundreds of people had gathered to cheer the rescuers on. People from all walks of life came together in one heartfelt moment, united in a humanitarian cause. Once lifted into the transport truck, JJ, as the baby whale came to be known, began its odyssey among humans. One year later, a revived and rehabilitated JJ was released into a pod of migrating gray whales.
“When we were trying to stabilize the whale,” recounted Wallerstein to a Los Angeles Times reporter, “police officers jumped right into the water without hesitation with all of their clothes on. If it wasn’t for these individuals helping” he continued, “that whale would have died. I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”
Peter’s passion for rescuing whales naturally carried over to all marine wildlife that were sick or injured. In 2007, Whale Rescue Team was renamed Marine Animal Rescue to better reflect his organization’s efforts.
In response to his achievements, Wallerstein was granted a Letter of Authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service to evaluate and rescue entangled marine animals. He and the rescue specialists he has trained have freed and stabilized dolphins for transport, adult sea lions suffering from domoic acid poisoning, pup and young adult elephant seals, sea lions, and harbor seals.
Wallerstein’s rescue methods have been nothing less than creative, adept, and resourceful. He has responded to calls for rescuing animals from jetties, docks, entanglement on buoys, flood control channels, and boat dive steps. Marine mammal guests even have turned up uninvited on a sea-side resident’s doorstep from time to time, a situation requiring an individual with Peter’s many years of experience in risky situations and more than a bit of innovative action.
Until Wallerstein arrived in Los Angeles County to take up the rescue mission, local animal control personnel and parking officers were using the same technique they use to capture stray dogs—aiming a catch pole in the hope of snagging the wayward marine animal around the neck. The process often harmed the animals and officers, too, who were being bit and injured as well.
One of Wallerstein’s signal achievements in his career is his design and production of specialized equipment for rescue and transportation of injured and distressed animals to the rehabilitation care center. The challenge was to invent a whole array of specialized tools and equipment to do the job safely. His innovations include hoop nets, floating nets that enable Wallerstein to rescue sea lions from jetties and boat docks by literally scooping them right into the nets, and specially constructed cages of different sizes equipped with wheels to roll them up a ramp and onto transport vehicles.
According to Wallerstein’s protocols, Marine Animal Rescue Specialist’s trucks also are now fully equipped with rescue nets for dolphins and gray whale stretchers in case a whale strands on the shore. Wallerstein has designed rescue equipment tools for each specific animal he and his team encounter on a regular basis.
But rescuing marine animals from seemingly unusual situations is not the end of this pioneering rescuer’s story, by any means. Wallerstein’s small boating skills are expert and his boating experience with animal disentanglement efforts includes captaining the vessel on 13 major Whale rescues. He now works side by side with Los Angeles County Lifeguards with whom he conducts training exercises, the Redondo Beach Harbor Patrol, and numerous other agencies.
Wallerstein’s safety record is outstanding, with only one individual sustaining an animal bite in more than three decades. He is particularly proud that not one individual working under his direction on either whale or pinniped rescues has ever been injured.
In person Wallerstein is relaxed, but at the same time intensely focused on the organization’s goal of saving as many marine animal lives as possible. With his mission-centered demeanor, Peter has won the appreciation and respect of the Los Angeles County lifeguards as well as the hearts of the community. He is naturally charismatic and enthusiastic about his subject, traits that make him a favorite speaker at Los Angeles County schools and community events.
When asked about his view of his work, he responds, “Just getting up every day knowing that my efforts will have a positive effect on a life is satisfying.” But he importantly adds, “I want my legacy to be that other people will learn from my 30 years of experience.”