By Emily Fisher
Every year, Oceana asks its supporters to help us nominate and ultimately select two individuals who are making a real difference for our oceans. This year, Oceana’s Ocean Heroes are an eight-year-old shark lover in Minnesota and a marine mammal rescuer in California.
Peter Wallerstein was on the beach helping a stranded California sea lion when Oceana called to tell him he had been named the 2011 adult Ocean Hero. It’s a fitting title for a man who has spent more than two decades working to protect beached marine mammals in southern California.
In 1985, Peter founded the Whale Rescue Team, which is now part of Marine Animal Rescue (MAR), a project of Friends of Animals. He started a 24-hour hotline for citizens to report beached or injured marine mammals, and he has personally rescued more than 4,000 marine mammals and birds in Southern California, from beached dolphins to whales tangled in gillnets.
Peter’s first rescue was a California gray whale and its calf, which were caught in a fishing net off Palos Verde. After cutting the tangled mother free, the baby was still stuck underwater.
“All of a sudden she came up and lifted her baby out of the water and we started cutting the baby out,” he said. The mother whale repeated the exercise several times until her baby was finally freed from the net.
After that harrowing first rescue, Peter was hooked on helping marine mammals. He started rescuing other creatures, such as dolphins and sea lions. At the time, beached marine animals were the responsibility of parking enforcement officers, Peter said.
“Animals weren’t being rescued. It was a sad situation,” he said. Though the federal government threatened to arrest Peter, he continued rescuing animals and gradually acquired the support of many local governments in southern California. As a result, Los Angeles County is now equipped with one of the best marine mammal response teams in the United States. Peter has trained lifeguards and firefighters, among others, to report stranded marine mammals.
Sea lions are the most common type of animal that Peter rescues. In April alone, MAR conducted 86 rescues, and 84 of those were California sea lions. Out of those, 80 were pregnant females. All of these sea lions were suffering from domoic acid poisoning, which is caused by algae blooms that produce a neurotoxin. The blooms are fed by pollution.
In mammals, including humans, domoic acid can cause brain damage and seizures. An infected sea lion becomes aggressive and difficult to rescue; Peter compared wrangling the 300 to 400-pound animals to “an unchoreographed dance.”
Domoic acid poisoning and marine mammal strandings have become so common that the local marine mammal care center is sometimes filled to capacity. Peter has been hard at work to ensure that saved mammals have an adequate facility where they can recuperate. His efforts paid off in 2010 when the federal government authorized MAR to construct and operate a second marine mammal care facility in Los Angeles County.
“Being voted the 2011 Oceana Ocean Hero is extremely humbling,” Peter said. “I hope that by winning this award people across the country will see the impact that Marine Animal Rescue is having in Los Angeles and will be inspired to improve the quality of similar rescues in their own coastal communities.”
This year’s junior Ocean Hero lives far from the oceans, but she is nevertheless committed to protecting her favorite animal – the shark.
Sophi Bromenshenkel, an eight-year-old girl from Richfield, Minn., first became inspired by oceans when visiting her uncle in the Florida Keys. Last year, she saw a beached, pregnant bull shark and knew she had to take action.
By selling lemonade, hot chocolate, shark-shaped cookies and wristbands back at home in Minnesota, and through email campaigns and local fliers, Sophi has raised more than $3,500 for shark conservation.
She has partnered with the University of Miami’s RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, where her funds pay for satellite tags on sharks. The university’s research team tracks the sharks in order to better understand their habitat and migration patterns. Last year the university named a tiger shark after Sophi, and she has joined the University’s scientists on two shark tagging expeditions.
Sophi is known at her school as the “shark girl,” and although she is naturally quiet, she has no problem telling others about the threats facing sharks. She has spoken to several groups in the community about shark conservation, and in January she convinced her church to host “shark month,” in which parishioners donated to Sophi’s cause.
When they’re not visiting family in Florida, Sophi’s dad Neil takes care that his daughter can enjoy sharks year-round. Last winter, he built a 30-foot-long snow sculpture of a hammerhead in their yard. Sophi named it Patches and checked on it every morning.
“What’s really special is that she’s making people aware in Minnesota,” Neil said. “Her favorite place is Lake Superior. She wishes there were sharks in there.”
The Ocean Heroes were nominated by Oceana supporters and the general public and narrowed down to a field of six finalists for the adult and junior categories by a panel of Oceana experts. The winners were decided by votes from our e-activists and the general public. Each Ocean Hero received prizes from Oceana’s sponsors: a Nautica gift card, a pair of Revo sunglasses and a copy of For Cod & Country, the guide to sustainable seafood by Washington D.C. chef and National Geographic Fellow Barton Seaver. You can learn more about the past winners and finalists, and take a pledge to be an ocean hero in your everyday life, at www.oceana.org/heroes.
The 2011 Ocean Hero Finalists
After working as a scuba instructor and middle school science teacher, Zach Rome founded The Schooba Academy, a non-profit organization in Brooklyn, NY that provides low-income students with private science tutoring, scuba training, and weekend field trip expeditions – all at no cost.
Marine biologist Nancy Caruso started the non-profit organization Get Inspired!, which works with students to restore the giant kelp forest ecosystem by teaching them to grow giant kelp in classroom nurseries. Nancy has taught around 4,000 students to grow giant kelp, white sea bass and green abalone.
In 2001, at age 11, Zander Srodes created Turtle Talks, an interactive sea turtle seminar for kids. He also wrote a sea turtle activity book to promote conservation in coastal communities around the world. The books have been printed and distributed from Cuba to Australia.
Maria Rita D’Orsogna
Maria D’Orsogna has been dubbed the “Erin Brockovich of Abruzzo” for her efforts to rally the public and officials to end offshore drilling in the Italian region of Abruzzo. In part as a result of her work, in 2010 the Italian government denied at least a dozen permits to drill in Abruzzo, and its coast remains free of oil wells.
Dirk Rosen is a deepwater engineer and the founder and president of the non-profitorganization Marine Applied Research and Exploration, which has used underwater surveys to assess marine protected areas and National Marine Sanctuary sites and to evaluate the impacts of fishing gear.
Carter and Olivia Ries
Ten-year-old Carter and his eight-year-old sister Olivia started the non-profit organization One More Generation, which raises awareness about endangered species around the world.
After learning about ocean acidification, they met with the Georgia governor’s office to ask him to support a bill to control carbon emissions.
Eight-year-old Wyatt Workman has raised nearly $4,000 for ocean conservation through his artistic endeavors, including a book, clay figures and a claymation movie, “Save the Sea from the Trash Monster!”
Twelve-year-old Dylan Vecchione created an organization called ReefQuest, which engages kids in reef conservation and stewardship. Over 4,000 kids have taken ReefQuest sponsored classes, and ReefQuest chapters have been created in Puerto Rico, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Malaysia, the Philippines and many Pacific islands.
High school junior Andrew Hayford has participated in nearly 30 beach cleanups and hosted more than 10 of his own in his home state of Maine. Working with Blue Ocean Society, Andrew designed the “Keep Our Beaches Clean” campaign, in which he worked with elementary school students to develop artwork and slogans for his campaign.
Fourteen-year-old McKenzy Haber hosted the first ever TEDx conference for teens in Homer, Alaska last year, with the theme of sustainability. In 2009 he attended the 9th World Wilderness Congress, where his presentation about teen leadership and protecting wild Alaskan waters moved many delegates to tears.