Laura Wiens, The Triplicate

There's no shortage of sea lions at the south end of Crescent City Harbor, crowding onto docks and often sidewalks and the edge of the Chart Room restaurant parking lot.

But the community still springs into action when one of Del Norte's signature marine mammals is in distress.

On a sunny Thursday morning this week, local forces mobilized in a difficult attempt to capture a young sea lion who has been languishing for weeks with a rope from fishing gear wrapped tightly around his neck, digging deeper all the time into muscle tissue.

"It's upsetting for the public to see this, and us as well," said Janet Dickey, a volunteer at the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center. "We've taken a lot of phone calls from the public. We've been watching this guy for about six weeks. Volunteers come down every day and try to spot him."

Alas, locating the wounded sea lion and actually helping him are two very different things.

Dickey was one of six Mammal Center volunteers equipped with "herd boards" who approached the sea lion congregation, first on the sidewalk and later on a dock after it retreated, in an attempt to isolate the target.

Kristin Lofstrom, another volunteer equipped with a board and a long-handled net, is a veteran of such rescue attempts.

"We just try and slowly get in there," Lofstrom said. "When you spook one, they all go."

"He always seems to be surrounded by his buddies, 800-pound sentries," said Dr. Dennis Wood, director and founder of the Mammal Center.

But the volunteers had their own allies: the Del Norte County Sheriff's Office and the U.S. Coast Guard. Both had boats in the water Thursday morning in an attempt to prevent the injured sea lion from swimming away. Sheriff's Sgt. Richard Griffin played a key role, attempting to capture the suffering animal with the help of a special gun that fires a net.

Griffin first took aim from his marine patrol boat, shot and missed. Then he climbed onto some rocks for a closer attempt, but to no avail. There were just too many other sea lions in the vicinity.

"The goal is to net him and not involve any others," said Wood.

Ultimately, even in his weakened state, the sea lion dove into the water and swam away from his would-be rescuers. But they won't be giving up.

The operation was also overseen by Lt. j.g. Mark Tatara, commander of the Coast Guard cutter Dorado, a post he took over last spring.

"We'll keep both boats in the water and will be ready to try and get him out," said Tatara. "Welike to help in these situations."

"That's what's great about working in a small community, to get that kind of cooperation," said Wood. "We're going to keep watching for him. We've got a lot more eyes on the situation. I'm confident that we can catch him in the next five to seven days.

"I can see he hasn't damaged any major blood vessels or his esophagus or trachea. He's not real round, but not emaciated. He's probably still been eating. He's much weaker than when we first saw him."

If the sea lion can be apprehended and subdued, the rope will be cut off and his wound treated to remove "devitalized tissue" and prevent infection, Wood said. He would then be released at the north end of Pebble Beach near Castle Rock.

"The water's cleaner there than in the harbor," said Wood. "He's much more likely to get an infection in the harbor."

Still, the sea lion would likely swim back to the harbor "within a day - or six hours," said Wood.

Thursday's operation proved tobe a good spectator sport for onlookers, including Victoria Sanchez and her husband, Jose, who come to the harbor every morning after they drop their kids off at school just to see the sea lions.

They were there at 8 a.m., "just sitting in our car, being nosy and got out to see what was going on," said Victoria Sanchez. "We looked and decided to stay here and watch the poor sea lion. We took a picture and you could see the blood and everything. It's pretty bad."

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