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Saviors by the Shore

HEARTS of the CITY

Sea: A group of volunteers rescue stranded marine animals, including the lost whale J.J.

April 23, 1997|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes animal rescue means not rescuing. When Terry Rogaczewski was called to the beach off Marina del Rey one Friday last January, a baby gray whale had just beached herself. Lifeguards pushed her back to sea to find her mother or a pod of whales. Rogaczewski--who devotes himself to rescuing stranded marine mammals--spent the day simply watching.

He kept a vigil through the night, leaving for a couple of hours only to shower and change clothes. If the whale was alive and returned to the shore, she would need to be protected from curious onlookers and snarly dogs. If she was dead, she would need to be removed. He had a feeling she might not survive. "I was basically planning my day to go out and find a carcass," he said.

But early that Saturday, the whale was spotted in the marina channel, weak yet alive. At that point, animal rescue switched into aggressive action. Within hours of getting federal permission to rescue the whale, Rogaczewski was in a small flotilla of boats trying to figure out how to coax the whale to shore. Once he got her headed in the right direction, he and several lifeguards swam toward the beach with her, and an army of volunteers hoisted her onto a truck. She was taken to Sea World and christened "J.J."

"To be right there and to be swimming in the water with her and to be part of her rescue," Rogaczewski said, "that was the best part of my life."

The 23-year old Rogaczewski spends his time rescuing seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales--and an occasional rattlesnake--that strand themselves on beaches or find themselves lost and injured on human turf. Headquartered at the Point Mugu Wildlife Center, Rogaczewski receives calls from lifeguards, sheriff's deputies and others who need an expert quickly when an animal is in peril.

Born in Encino, Rogaczewski has been interested in marine animals since he enrolled in a North Hollywood High School program that allowed him to take classes at the Los Angeles Zoo in zoology and marine biology. After graduation, he trained animals for a now-defunct marine mammal show at Magic Mountain as well as sea lions for the movies "Andre" and the upcoming "Stinkers."

He has now sworn off film work. "The animals do a lot of stressful things, and that's not what I want to put them through," he said.

Rogaczewski worked as part of the Marine and Mountain Wildlife Rescue team for the city of Malibu until they stopped rescues because of lack of funding. Now, the Malibu rescue team of volunteers has been absorbed into the new wildlife center at Point Mugu. As Rogaczewski walks among the crumbling ruins of old dolphin research pools in a remote part of the Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station in Ventura County, he sounds like a new homeowner. He envisions a renovation that will turn the old pools into a way station for ailing or lost animals that need to be "rehabbed" before being returned to the wild.

"My feeling is that we've done so much to them wrong in the past, we kind of owe it to them," he says of the animals. "I think a lot of the reasons they come ashore are because of what we've caused--the pollution, getting shot in the ocean or speared."

Rogaczewski drives a sport utility vehicle filled with the tools of his trade--a wetsuit, emergency medications, a kennel for ferrying seals and sea lions, a steel pole with a clamp to pick up rattlesnakes.

He shares a mobile home in Acton with his aunt and a menagerie of animals consisting of three parrots, a desert tortoise he rescued, five outdoor cats and a chow.

With the exception of movie work, animal rescue is not lucrative--yet it has a certain social allure that he says he does not use. "I don't just walk up to people and say, 'I rescue animals,' but there are people who use that as a pickup line," he said with a chuckle.

To make ends meet, he lifeguards at private parties for kids and recently applied to guard this summer in Palmdale.

"I can't really have a full-time job because of the strandings," he said.

The J.J. rescue may have been his most challenging, but few were as dramatic as the 1995 mission that had him and several other volunteers rappelling down Point Dume in Malibu to the beach--the trail had been washed out by a storm--to rescue an ill sea lion. Rogaczewski prevailed upon a news helicopter to land on the beach. "I shoved the sea lion into the crate, put it into the helicopter and it flew us right to the top of Point Dume."

He gets many false alarms: "Injured" sea lions on the beach turn out to be simply sunning themselves; a "whale" reportedly headed for the Malibu Pier turns out to be a gray piling.

He's not immune to being fooled himself. During this migratory season, he has spotted whale yearlings in the surf that seemed to be headed for the beach when, in fact, they were just frolicking.

Rogaczewski was involved with the attempted rescues of all three of the baby gray whales stranded this season off Southern California. Only J.J. survived.

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