Mammal was returned to the ocean after being freed from fishing line.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s red fire boat passed by Newport Harbor’s bell buoy over and over, inching closer and moving slower each time.
“We wanted the sea lions to get used to this big red boat so close to their hangout without spooking them,” said Harbor Patrol Sgt. John Hollenbeck.
The mission was straightforward: Capture a 150-pound sea lion resting on the buoy at the channel’s entrance to save its life. But netting an animal that is capable of jumping in the water and diving below is no easy task from a boat.
Over the past week, both Harbor Patrol and the Pacific Marine Mammal Center had been getting calls from worried passersby about a sea lion with fishing line wrapped around its neck, cutting into the pinniped’s fur.
Hollenbeck, who was part of the rescue team that captured the animal Friday, said staff from the rescue center had attempted to save the animal a week earlier with no luck. The team realized the longer the animal remained ensnared, the more likely infection could set in, limiting its chance for survival.
As a last-ditch effort, sheriff’s deputies and rescue center staff and volunteers rode out Friday morning on two fire boats to try and corral the sea lion. After a few failed attempts to net the sea lion – which would hop off the buoy into the water when the boat came close – the plan for the methodical approach was put into action.
“It took a while, but it worked,” said Hollenbeck, who operated the second fireboat in charge of “herding” the sea lion.
Once close enough, the team placed a large hoop net over the animal, working together to pull it aboard the boat and into the safety of a crate.
Once aboard, the sea lion was whisked to Laguna Beach for treatment at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, where the fishing line was removed and the animal made a quick recovery.
“That line kept him from eating and swimming properly,” said Melissa Sciacca at the rescue center. “But we have a team here that deals with these entanglements pretty frequently, and they know what to do.”
After a weekend of recovery, the sea lion was released back out at the Newport Harbor buoy early Monday morning.
“He knows that area, so we wanted to put him back where he was comfortable and could get back to fishing,” said Michelle Hunter, director of animal care at the rescue center.
As is the rescue center’s custom, the sea lion was given a name by the rescuing team that helped in the recovery, so Orange County Sheriff’s deputies decided to name it “Officer Jon” after Laguna Beach police Officer Jon Coutchie, who was killed in the line of duty Sept. 21.
“They wanted to name him after their recently fallen comrade, so we were happy to do it,” Sciacca said.