Endangered Sea Turtle Rescued From Ballona Creek in Los Angeles

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Sea Turtle, Matt Chebatoris, Ballona Creek, Los Angeles
The Green Sea Turtle resting in the Marine Animal Rescue truck after Peter Wallerstein cut the fishing line. Photo: Rick Pine

I left work later than I had planned this past Thursday and decided to head over to Playa del Rey to launch my SUP from Ballona Creek and paddle out into the Santa Monica Bay instead of continuing south to outrigger practice with the Lanakila Outrigger Canoe Club in Redondo Beach. Outrigger practice begins promptly at 5:30 and I knew I wouldn’t make it there before the six man canoes were launched. Sure, I could always take out one of the club OC-1’s and join in the workout, but I just felt like loosening up on a SUP that evening.

I park my Jeep in a parking garage at work. There isn’t enough clearance to carry a board on the roof, so I started keeping an inflatable SUP in the back for days when I wanted to head straight to the water after work. Playa del Rey is on the way to Redondo Beach from my office on the Sony lot in Culver City and I easily found a spot to park just down the street from Ballona Creek.

I pumped up my board and after checking to make sure I had everything I needed: PFD, leash, paddle, footwear, sunglasses, and Shelta Hat, I walked down the street and descended the concrete steps embedded in the center of a decommissioned boat launch where I placed my board in the water. I was paddling the Sea Eagle NeedleNose 12’6” that evening and as I looked out towards the bay I noticed a bit of swell and wind chop. The Sea Eagle NeedleNose is best suited for flat water and I briefly considered going out into the open water for what may have been a bumpy ride, but decided to paddle east up the creek instead.

I have ridden my beach cruiser up and down the Ballona Creek bicycle path countless times in the past, but this was my first stand up paddleboard exploration of the brackish water in the urban section of the creek which has not been completely lined with concrete. It was a warm evening and I could easily see the San Gabriel Mountains lining the eastern horizon.

I saw a few fish as I left my launch area and after a brief warm up to unwind I picked up the pace and settled into a sustainable cadence intended to give me a good cardio workout. Numerous species of waterfowl and various wading birds such as herons and egrets were exploring the shoreline as I paddled down the center of the channel.

As I neared the Culver Boulevard overpass, approximately 1.5 miles (2.2k) from my launch point, I saw something reasonably large break the surface of the water out of the corner of my eye. I wasn’t sure what I had seen and since I was paddling in the creek for the first time my curiosity was piqued.

The Sea Turtle

I turned around and paddled towards where I saw the disturbance in the water. And then there it was, a large sea turtle struggling to free itself from a tangled green fishing line! I had never seen a sea turtle in the wild, but there one was splashing and gasping at the surface in the middle of the Ballona Creek!

Green Sea Turtle, Matt Chebatoris, Rick Pine, Ballona Creek
Untangling the fishing line from the turtle’s feet. Photo: Rick Pine

The fishing line appeared to be connected to something on the bottom of the creek, which was causing the turtle to essentially remain in the same location in the middle of the channel. As I maneuvered my board next to the turtle it became spooked and darted to the murky depths of the creek. At this point I was confident the turtle was essentially tethered to creek bed and would resurface in the same location before long. Sure enough, the turtle reappeared in a few seconds. After a couple of attempts I was able to hook my Quickblade paddle underneath the fishing line and hold the sea turtle near the surface. I reeled in the turtle by sliding my paddle along the fishing line and quickly got to work untangling the knotted mess from the turtle’s shell and fins.

It was a slow process and on more than one occasion the line slipped out from my paddle and the sea turtle repeated its panicked dive to the depths of the creek. I was eventually able to remove the tangled fishing line from the sea turtle’s flipper shaped feet, but the end of the line was firmly embedded out of sight in the turtle’s throat.

As I was assessing what to do next, Rick Pine, a local nature photographer, passed by on his bicycle and offered assistance. Rick had the number for a marine animal rescue non-profit and promptly contacted them to report the situation. Luckily for us, Peter Wallerstein, a Marine Animal Rescue Specialist with the El Segundo-based Marine Animal Rescue, was only 20 minutes away.

I generated some slack in the fishing line and tied it to the handle on my SUP and attempted to paddle to the creek bank where Rick was waiting, but the tethered section was not long enough. The line would have to be broken. Neither Rick nor I had a knife so I paddled back out to the main channel, tied a section of the fishing line to the shaft of my Quickblade paddle and let the current carry me until the line was taut. I then gave the line two hard tugs and managed to break it.sea turtle, green sea turtle, Matt Chebatoris, Ballona Creek

Once the fishing line was broken from its tether at the bottom of Ballona Creek I gently paddled to the bank and coaxed the sea turtle along. This maneuver took a few minutes to complete as I wanted to avoid dragging the sea turtle by its mouth through the water.

I reached the edge of the creek where Rick grabbed the front handle on my board and pulled me onto the rocky bank. Peter Wallerstein arrived a moment later and successfully scooped the turtle from the water in a large net. Together he and I carried the sea turtle up the rocky embankment to his truck. Peter then cut the fishing line while leaving a sufficient amount protruding from the turtle’s mouth for the animal care specialists at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach to see so they could assess how to remove the hook embedded in the turtle’s throat.

Recovery

The next day I received word the sea turtle I rescued was an endangered Green Sea Turtle. The animal care specialists at the Aquarium of the Pacific had successfully removed the hook from the sea turtle’s throat and planned to keep it for an observation period before releasing it back into the wild.

I have been in contact with the Media Relations department at the aquarium and hope to have the opportunity to visit the Green Sea Turtle and speak with the staff members who removed the hook from its throat prior to the turtle’s release. You never know what you’ll see when you’re out stand up paddling, but coming across an endangered sea turtle was definitely the last thing I expected to find when I headed up the Ballona Creek last Thursday evening.

Special thanks to the following: KÜHL for providing me with a pair of Mutiny Shorts, my favorite shorts for rugged exploration, Bluesmiths for the Lane Hydrophobic Shirt, my go to shirt for all types of paddling, Shelta Hats for the best sun protection head wear on earth, Quickblade Paddles, for making the strongest and lightest paddles, and Sea Eagle, for providing me with a NeedleNose 12’6″ inflatable SUP for my adventures.  

Photo Gallery from Ballona Creek

4 COMMENTS

  1. What a great story, Matt! Since green sea turtles can get up to five feet and 700 pounds, it looks like the one you found was a juvenile. If you talk to the people at the aquarium, ask them how old they think the turtle is and let me know. Love your website…it is informative and entertaining!

  2. Amazing story, I bike there often and it never crossed my mind there could be sea turtles in there.

  3. I was power walking on the bike path that day! I saw the paddle boarder and thought he was in distress! I asked if I could help. He told me about the turtle, and I ran over to the MDR Sheriff’s Office and asked them to call for help. As I got back onto the bike path I saw the truck from the Marine Animal Rescue! I’m glad to know they exist to serve our marine life. Thank you so much for your diligence and perseverance in saving this precious creature! Thanks to Marine Animal Rescue and The Aquarium of the Pacific!

  4. I’ve paddled Ballona Creek many times on both SUP and surfski and have never encountered anything like this.

    Looks like you got lucky–and the sea turtle, too!

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