After months of living with fishing wire wrapped around its neck, a La Jolla Cove-based sea lion was at risk of dying if the man-made wire wasn't urgently removed.
So, SeaWorld San Diego rescue crews came up with a plan to capture the eight-year-old male sea lion and release it back into the waters near La Jolla Cove within 24 hours.
The entanglement had dug into the animal's neck so severely that the skin began to regrow over the wire. The situation was "dire," according to the rescue team.
The wire was close to cutting through the sea lion's windpipe and major arteries, which would have killed the marine mammal, SeaWorld spokesperson David Koontz said.
The rescue team had attempted to capture the animal before but there were risks involved: approach the sea lion as he basks near the water's edge and he makes a getaway; tranquilize him and he could jump into the water and drown.
So the team bided their time, monitoring the sea lion several times a week for the last three to four months. But the injury worsened as the animal continued to grow and crews were forced to take action.
On Wednesday, the rescue team had a clear shot of the mammal as it slept, nose to the sky, near the bottom of the cliffs of La Jolla Cove. It was a prime opportunity to capture the injured animal with a large net.
"We’ve been monitoring these animals for a long time and they have been difficult to rescue, but when we arrived at the beach the animal was asleep and in a great location to attempt the rescue," SeaWorld rescue's Jody Westberg said.
Two team members quietly approached the sea lion and he was caught, carried up the stairs to La Jolla Cove and transported to SeaWorld’s Animal Health and Rescue Center, where veterinarian Dr. Tres Clarke performed a difficult surgery to remove the fishing line.
"Our veterinarians had to work very carefully to ensure they avoided some very vital structures in the animal’s neck, specifically the trachea and carotid arteries," Koontz said.
Within a day, the sea lion was wire-free and swimming in the ocean.
SeaWorld San Diego says they have about four or five other sea lions at the La Jolla Cove that they are monitoring through SeaWorld’s Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Program. Team members evaluate when they able to safely access and rescue each animal under their surveillance.
With the addition of their latest rehabilitation, SeaWorld's rescue team has aided 86 sea lions so far in 2019 and hundreds of other marine animals.