Story and photos by Petty Officer First Class Allyson Conroy
On the clear, crisp morning of Dec. 17, the crewmembers of the Coast Guard Cutter George Cobb helped load an 1,100 pound sea lion onto the deck of the buoy tender. Their mission today would be to transport "Captain Hook" 60 miles off the coast of California to a sea lion habitat near San Clemente Island.
The crew worked with the members of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, whose staff and volunteers originally rescued the sea lion in October near Newport Beach. This would be the first of two rescues for "Captain Hook," who was nicknamed because he had more than 70 hooks and lines attached to him when rescued. He then spent about a month at the Center where a veterinarian removed the hooks, the volunteers helped fattened him up and the staff worked to rehabilitate and help heal his wounds. He was released near San Onofre, Calif., Nov. 10 and within a week needed rescuing again, this time with more hooks attached to him. "Captain Hook" was sent back to the "rehab" facility on Nov. 19 where he would spend nearly a month.
Coast Guard loads "Captain Hook" onboard
CGC George Cobb
"The idea behind rehabilitation is to send the animals back into the wild as healthy as possible," Melissa Sciacca, the director of development for the center said. "The animals will eat about 50 pounds of fish a day while in captivity. We try to fatten them up as much as we can so they have a better chance of survival once they are released. ‘Captain Hook' seemed to enjoy claiming fish that were already claimed by fishermen. Hopefully by taking him out to San Clemente Island he will have more food and not feel the need to compete with the fishermen."
Because he was so big, "Captain Hook" needed a very large boat to transport him to the habitat off San Clemente Island.
"This is a great opportunity to help out the environment," said Lt.Cmdr. Shawn Decker, the commanding officer of the George Cobb. "One of our core missions is to protect the marine life. What better way to do that than to help with the release of this sea lion into an environment where he has the chance at a better life?"
The morning started early for "Captain Hook" when he was loaded into his transport cage and taken from the Center in Laguna Beach to the cutter in San Pedro. To move him and his cage from the pick-up to the cutter, slings were used, which were then attached to the crane of the buoy tender. Very carefully, BM2 Justin Abold gave the signals to the crane operator, MK1 David Einchenlaub, directing him where to send the crane to place the cage on the ship. After some loud input from the sea lion, he was safely on deck and secured into place.
At 9 a.m. the Cobb's crew and their guests, staff and volunteers from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, and a camera crew from National Geographic began the 60 mile journey with "Captain Hook" to his new home. Through the entire ride "Captain Hook" seemed at ease with the movement of the ship and the interested humans who could not look at him enough while they said their goodbyes to him.
"Captain Hook" dives off into the Pacific Ocean.
"We've had him with us for about two months," Kelli Lewis, the center's educational director said. "We all get attached to the animals we work with. Each of them has their own distinct personality and distinct sounds. For a lot of the people who work with them, the release is emotional. Of course, the most important thing is to see them thrive in their natural environment."
About three hours into the voyage Dean Gomersall, the animal care supervisor for the Center, Lt. Cmdr. Decker and Sciacca gathered around the chart table on the bridge to decide the best place to release the large mammal. Finally they choose a place that is a known sea lion habitat with "lots of female sea lions" and plenty of food. Sciacca believes these factors will give "Captain Hook" the best chance of survival.
At about 1:30 in the afternoon the sun had slid behind puffy white clouds, and "Captain Hook" seemed to know he was near his new home. He woke up, started looking around and calling out. A couple of the volunteers tried to soothe him, telling him it wouldn't be long before he was swimming again with other sea lions. With that promise, the ship slowed to a stop and the ideal spot for his release was decided on.
Sciacca and Gomersall crawled on top of his cage to pull the door open as two volunteers from the center and Cobb crewmember, SN Heriberto Arambula, stood on either side holding large plywood boards to coax the mammal to jump from his cage to the water.
As if the Times Square ball was dropping on New Year's Eve, everyone counted down from ten.
"Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! ONE!"
"Captain Hook" swims away into his new habitat.
Sciacca and Gomersall opened the door and told him to jump into the water. "Captain Hook" looked around a little, as if he was contemplating his best escape. To everyone's satisfaction he decided on the water. With a big splash and lots of cheers the sea lion entered the Pacific Ocean and swam toward the island. After a couple of minutes swimming under the water, he poked his head up and seemed to look back to the humans who rescued him, cared for him, and set him free. He wasted no time in finding new friends. Soon after poking his head up, he was seen swimming with two other sea lions, a couple of females, the volunteers suspected.
"This isn't something we get to do all the time," Decker said, "but it is really neat we were able to help send him back into the wild. I hope we can work with the center in the future to do more good deeds such as this."