A rare sea turtle was caught by a fisherman late Sunday, Aug. 27, off the Huntington Beach Pier, and after it was pulled up 30 feet from the water, lifeguards were able to release it back into the ocean.
“You never know what the ocean is going to deliver on your front door step,” said Marine Safety Officer Doug Leach, who was on duty Sunday evening. “We see it all.”
Lifeguards determined it was a Green Sea Turtle. They have been known to live along the San Gabriel River bordering Long Beach and in recent months have popped up in places such as Dana Point Harbor and between surfers at nearby Doheny State Beach.
Leach said in his 18 years on the job, it is only the third one he’s seen.
“I know there’s one that lives in Huntington Harbor, that I’ve seen, but it’s sort of random for one to be here,” he said. “There’s a very small population of these in Southern California.”
He said lifeguards were notified by a bystander on the pier at about 6:30 p.m. that someone had pulled the turtle onto the pier. He said they didn’t want to throw it back into the ocean for fear that the 30-foot drop would injure the creature.
Lifeguards did a quick Google search and said the turtle seemed fine. Leach estimated it weighed about 40 pounds.
“I don’t know much about the biology of sea turtles, but it seemed big to me,” he said.
Lifeguards had the sea turtle for a few hours, keeping it in the back of a red lifeguard truck while waiting for a call from wildlife officials. After not hearing back, they decided to release the endangered species back into the wild.
“We went to an un-populated area, they released it and it swam away, no problem,” Leach said.
In a video, lifeguard Andrew Mackie is seen wearing blue gloves as he holds the turtle by the shell above the water and gives it a gentle push back out to sea.
Leach said the incident shows how dynamic a lifeguard’s job can be.
“It’s not just people, it’s wildlife we deal with,” he said.
The Aquarium of the Pacific, since 2008, has been collecting observational data on the sea turtles of the San Gabriel River. According to its website, sea turtles here use several miles of the river. Researchers use patterns on the turtles’ heads for identification and have determined that some are residents of the area and are not just passing through.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, green turtles have been spotted from Baja California to southern Alaska along the eastern Pacific, but most commonly show up from San Diego south. In the central Pacific, green turtles hang out around most tropical islands, including the Hawaiian Islands.
They are protected in the United States by federal law under the Endangered Species Act.
Jim Milbury, spokesman for the NOAA, said Monday that the law enforcement department had not heard of the catch, and if an angler accidentally caught it while fishing it probably wouldn’t be considered a violation.
“If someone is fishing and the turtle bites on the food, that’s really not going to be an issue,” he said.
He said the concern would be whether the sea turtle swallowed the hook.
“If it was injested, there would be concern about damage to the insides,” he said.
Milbury said he’s heard a lot more talk about turtles recently. “There seems to be a lot more turtles popping up everywhere,” he said.
Julianne Steers, director of husbandry for the Ocean Institute in the Dana Point Harbor, said she’s also heard of many more reports of sea turtles in local waters the past few years. Steers, a diver, said she’s also encountered more while underwater.
“I probably get a call every other week,” she said. “The Doheny area — we seem to be getting a lot of calls and we’ve had several sightings inside the harbor as well.”
Steers attributes their increased presence to warmer water.
“This year hasn’t been as much the El Nino conditions, but the water has remained warm,” she said. “It’s been at least 72 on the surface, and the bottom depth isn’t that far off.”
They may also be coming here to feed.
“Our waters have been nice and warm, and there seems to be a reasonable amount of food,” she said.