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Abagnale Returns to the Wild

Entangled in Fishing line then Rescued and Treated by The Marine Mammal Center - Abagnale Goes Back to His Ocean Home


March 17, 2010
Abagnale was spotted resting on Sea Harvest Dock in Moss Landing. He appears to be in good health and weight!

February 5, 2009 - Release!
After nearly three weeks and 20 rescue attempts, an adult male California sea lion with a tight fishing line entanglement around his neck and mouth was released back to the ocean at Rodeo Beach north of San Francisco today by The Marine Mammal Center. Abagnale, as the sea lion was named after the 1960's con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. who was always two steps ahead of authorities, was originally spotted at PIER 39 on the evening of January 1, and was rescued in Moss Landing Harbor by The Marine Mammal Center on January 24. With rescue options dwindling, and the animal's life threatened, the team decided to try something never done before with wild, free-swimming marine mammals. Using darts, veterinarians injected a mild sedative (not a tranquilizer) into the animal to calm and slow him down in order to facilitate a successful and safe rescue. The Center's rescue team, both in the water and on land, were then able to rescue the sea lion and transported him to the Center's Sausalito hospital headquarters.

At the Center, veterinarians anesthetized the malnourished sea lion and removed the monofilament nylon fishing line that was deeply imbedded into his neck and mouth, performed a physical, and they administered antibiotics and pain killers. During his 13-day-stay at the hospital, Abagnale ate just over 100 pounds of herring. On February 2, veterinarians examined the pinniped again and were pleased to see that the wounds were beginning to heal and that there appeared to be no other complications. Given his regained strength and healthy appetite, veterinarians feel confident that Abagnale will survive quite well in the ocean and that the saltwater will help his wounds continue to heal.

Abagnale's entanglement story, sadly, is a common one seen at the Center. In 2009, approximately eight-percent of the 1,702 marine mammals that volunteers and staff at The Marine Mammal Center rescued stranded as a result of entanglement in marine debris. The Center responds to seals, sea lions and other marine mammals that are in need of rescue along 600 miles of coast between Mendocino and San Luis Obispo Counties and through 800 volunteers and a small staff, provides medical care to each animal admitted with the goal of getting those patients healthy enough to be released back to the ocean.

"What's maddening is that you look at the wide array of reasons why marine mammals strand such as illnesses and malnourishment and this one - marine debris - is something we can control if we just change our behaviors and attitudes about how we discard plastics, fishing line and other trash that becomes marine debris," said Jeff Boehm, executive director at The Marine Mammal Center. "We hope people will hear Abagnale's story and make a pledge to eliminate marine debris, and in turn, help marine mammals and the ocean."

In December 2005, the Center came to the rescue of a 50-foot-long humpback whale in the Pacific Ocean near the Farallon Islands that was entangled in more than 40 crab-pot lines. In 2008, Dr. Frances Gulland, director of veterinary science at The Marine Mammal Center, along with a team of researchers, examined a 51-foot-long sperm whale that had died and washed up on a California beach - a victim of marine debris. Dr. Gulland and the team discovered nearly 450 pounds of commercial fishing nets, braided rope, and other debris inside the animal's stomach - a pile the size of three large refrigerators.

About The Marine Mammal Center's water rescue team:
The Center's water rescue team is a specialized unit of 14 trained volunteers who perform water and dock or pier-based rescues of marine mammals, the majority of which are entangled in marine debris such as plastics, netting, fishing line and crab-pot lines, among other things. Last year, the team logged in more than 900 rescue hours. With Abagnale's rescue, they logged in just over 280 hours.

About The Marine Mammal Center's  Save Our Seals - Save Ourselves campaign:
The Save Our Seals - Save Ourselves campaign is The Marine Mammal Center's first comprehensive outreach campaign produced by the Center that is designed to inspire ocean stewardship and show the connections we have with marine mammals and the ocean environment that we all share. By leveraging its extensive knowledge of marine mammals, its marine science education programs for schoolchildren and the public, and its newly rebuilt hospital headquarters in Sausalito, the Center encourages and inspires people to make a difference simply by changing their behaviors. The public can learn more about this campaign and ways to eliminate marine debris by clicking here and they can take a pledge to end marine debris at

January 16 - Water Rescue Proves Difficult
The Center resumed a rescue mission for the sea lion with entanglements around its neck and mouth on Saturday, January 16. A team of eight rescuers boarded the Center's Zodiac in Moss Landing Harbor where the adult male sea lion was spotted resting on the end of a dock.

Rescuers in wetsuits and a Seine net entered the water while two rescuers hid behind a boat near the dock with another net. The Seine net is a special one that allows rescuers to submerge it underwater, and then open it up to form a 12-foot-long rectangle. Once the animal is in the net, it can be quickly cinched.  As the water rescuers neared, they spread open the large net underwater in hopes that the sea lion would jump in.  Unfortunately, the alert sea lion knew all too well what the rescuers had in mind, and dived into the water before the net could be put into place.  He swam to a near-bye boat and perched onto the end of the vessel's pontoon.  The sea lion made his way to other places just out of the reach of the rescuers.  Each time, the team re-adjusted their strategy, and each time the sea lion, cognizant of his surroundings, was able to avoid their nets.  In all, six rescue attempts were made that day and after the last failed attempt – which dramatically took place back on the pontoon, and involved team members climbing a three-story abandoned boat to drop a net from above onto the animal -  the team decided to stop for the day for fear of tiring the animal out too much.

Performing a water rescue is no easy task – to say the least.  It takes an incredible amount of skill, tenacity and bravery to get in the water with these animals without scaring off the one you're hoping to rescue and causing even more injury to it.  "For every eight water rescue attempts we make, there is at least one success – and that is what makes all the hard work worth it," says Sue Pemberton, leader of The Marine Mammal Center's Water Rescue Team and a 15 plus year veteran of rescuing both land and aquatic animals.  In 2009, the team logged just over 900 hours in the water, rescuing sea lions in particular, with similar entanglements.  "One life is worth putting in all of those hours given the nature of that kind of injury; at the end of the day, it's about mitigating all of the garbage people put in the ocean, and that cause such great harm to these beautiful creatures," said Pemberton.

Rescue attempts may resume as early as next weekend, pending the animal's condition, location, and possible storm activity.

Water Rescue Issues at Moss Landing Harbor:

1) The currents inside the marina can be deceivingly powerful at times.  There have been instances where the team couldn't even approach the docks because the current was too strong.  Their nets, which can trail up to six feet underwater, can act as an underwater "sail" and dramatically affect the ability to maneuver.  From the viewing area there may be no hint of the current that's there.

2) The docks are attached to each other below the water by a network of chains.  It is difficult for swimmers to maneuver inside the docks as they have to crawl over these chains and deal with persistent snagging of rescue nets.

3) The docks are not tightly moored and thus have a wide area in which to move around.  What can look like a five-foot-wide channel to swim through can quickly close up to nothing if two docks drift towards each other.  Not only does this affect the team's mobility, but it can become dangerous and they risk getting crushed by the docks.

4) The top of the docks rest a foot or more above the water.  Climbing onto a dock is a difficult procedure when in the water, and cannot be done stealthily.  The team is limited almost entirely to a water-based attempt, unless the target animal is lethargic enough to allow them to approach by boat.

5) The team's nets become very heavy once in the water, and their ability to move these nets around quickly is diminished due to their lack of leverage because they have nothing to stand on or push off of.  Due to the physics of it all, it's more difficult than it may seem - one might think a rescuer can just throw a net around as he wishes, but in reality it is very difficult to do that.

There are many other challenges common to both land and water rescues, but these are the ones the water rescue teams face the most, in addition to lighting, boat traffic, other sea lions nearby and access.

Special thanks to the Water Rescue Team:

Shawn Mallan
Sue Pemberton
Kathi Koontz
Peter Ottersbach
Doug Ross
Carolina Dratva
Darci Hermann
Roy Coto

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