Sea Turtle Rescue

This is the (true) story of how a dorado saved the life of a sea turtle….

Also published in 48° North Magazine’s September 2012 issue.


After an early morning start from Mazatlan, we headed for Puerto Vallarta. Mike was napping below and I was whiling away the time of my watch with a good book in our sunny cockpit. There wasn’t much of a breeze and just a few clouds. Being “on watch” simply means we look around every ten minutes or so, making sure we are still on course and no other vessels are in sight.

Occasionally we also check the fishing line that always trails our boat. Most times it seems to repulse any fish in the area but not this morning! I yelled down to Mike that we had a fish on the line, slowed the boat and started reeling it in. When I saw a bright yellow flash I knew right away it was a dorado. We’d be eating good tonight! As soon as Mike heard me say “dorado” he was up on deck with the camera, ready to document the occasion. As I got the beautiful fish close to the boat Mike took a couple of photos and then the fish had one big burst of energy and shook himself free of the hook. So much for fresh ceviche and fish tacos….

While we were lamenting our loss, I spotted something white floating not far off the port side of the boat. We usually don’t go out of our way to investigate trash for fear of getting line or netting, that may be attached to it, into our prop. But this thing looked odd to me,  it appeared that something was swimming very close to white flotsam. I took the boat off autopilot and steered over to it. Mike went up on deck to spot any debris that might foul our prop.

As we approached, it became clear that the white flotsam I had spotted was a makeshift buoy made out of a white plastic jug and a 2 liter soda bottle. And tangled up in it appeared to be a sea turtle! At first glance we thought the turtle was dead because we saw what looked like white bugged out eyes, but as we approached the turtle started to thrash around. We later discovered what looked like white eyes on top of the turtle’s head were actually two white barnacles attached just above each of the turtle’s eyes.Now that we knew the turtle was still alive we had to try and rescue it.  We formulated a quick plan and pulled some gear together. As we approached the buoy again, we noticed a line trailing down that probably had a shrimp or lobster pot at the end of it. We also noted which direction the current was pulling it and made sure to make subsequent approaches from the opposite side to keep our prop clear. While I pulled up to the buoy Mike was on the bow trying to toss a loop of line over the jug.

The current, swell and waves kept pushing us off target and after several tries we decided to try backing up to it so Mike could use our swim-step and be closer to the water. Every time we approached, the poor turtle started to panic and tried to dive, but with the buoy attached to one flipper it could barely dive a foot deep. After several tries Mike was able to grab a hold of a short line attached to the buoy and get our rope around the jug so he could pull the turtle close to the boat and remove the buoy from the turtle.With the whole contraption firmly attached to our boat we were taking a short breather when we realized that now the turtle was being pulled under water and no longer able to come up for air. So Mike just started pulling the whole thing toward the boat and cut the line that was dragging everything down. But the turtle was still attached to the white jug. Mike pulled it onto our swim step and once the turtle was on deck he cut away the line that was wrapped tightly around the turtle’s flipper. After letting the turtle rest a while Mike pushed it back into the water and it dove off in a flash. Viva la vida!

So you see, if it hadn’t been for the dorado that made us slow the boat down, I probably would have missed the white buoy all together because I wasn’t due for a look around for another ten minutes. And if the dorado hadn’t gotten off the hook we would have been too busy dealing with it to spot the buoy.

And that is how the dorado came to save the sea turtle!

In hindsight, we wondered if we could have done things differently. There was a 3’ to 4’ swell, the current was running at about 2 knots and we were over 20 miles from shore. There were just the two of us on the boat. We later emailed with a marine conservationist and were told that the best way to approach a distressed marine mammal is for the rescuer to be in the water. We had considered this as we formulated a plan for the rescue and we were just not comfortable with going into the water. Considering the sea state and the risk to ourselves and our boat we still believe that we made the right decisions.

10 Responses

  1. WOW! What an amazing story!!

    You had tears in my eyes. I am so happy you could save it. What a wonderful day.

    Thank you for taking the time and videoing such an wonderful event.

    I bet your names will now become part of Sea Turtle folk lore.


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