The Pelican Grief

I was touched by this story by Lynne Cox of Los Alamitos, California, which appeared in the August 2007 issue of Guideposts. Here is her abridged account of helping a bird in distress . . . and the astonishing resolution that is nothing short of  a celebration of spirit.

pelicanThrough my goggles I could just barely make out my friend Louise in the predawn darkness, swimming through the ocean swells a couple feet ahead of me. Keep it up, Louise. I was training her to swim the nearly 27-mile distance from Catalina Island to the California mainland, a swim I first accomplished at age 14, and today was our longest workout—15 miles from the Malibu pier to the Santa Monica pier.

We were getting close to the Malibu pier. I’d warned Louise to be careful. “Keep your distance and watch out for discarded fishing lines,” I’d said. When you’ve been an open-water swimmer as long as I have, you know the biggest danger in the ocean isn’t always sharks. More often than not, man-made hazards pose the greatest threat—to man and animal.

We paused for a moment near the pier to watch the sun climb over the horizon. A soft, warm morning light suffused the sky, painting the sea cliffs in rosy tones. A flock of pelicans flew overhead, in perfect V formation. Moments like that are why I love swimming in the open water. There are no lane lines, the sky is the only ceiling and the water is limitless. In the open water I feel the motion of the waves and the wind blowing across the surface, but also the movement of creatures all around me. Pods of dolphins sometimes swim alongside. Fish jump into the air and plop back down with big happy splashes. It reminds me that I’m a guest in the beautiful home God gave them. That’s something I wish more people realized. The earth does not belong to us. It belongs to heaven.

“Come on,” I called to Louise. “Let’s keep going.” We passed the Malibu pier and headed south. We were really cruising now. The cool water felt great, rushing past. Then suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something white splashing in the water. It was a young pelican paddling toward me. That’s odd, I thought. Pelicans don’t normally approach people. I swam closer. Immediately I saw what was wrong. The pelican was tangled in a fishing line. I looked at Louise, still swimming just up ahead. She was doing so well, it would be a shame for her to stop now. But I didn’t want to leave her to swim alone while I did something about the bird. What do I do?

There was a small barnacle-covered rock jutting up from the waves. Maybe I could guide the pelican to the rock, get him out of the water and untangle the line. I hooked my left arm around the bird and he swam with me to the rock, but struggled to climb up. Getting the line untangled wouldn’t be easy either—the hooks were still attached and deeply imbedded in the bird’s wings. His pouch and neck were covered in black ticks and lice—the fishing line had prevented the pelican from cleaning himself. And the line had torn a long, bloody gash in his leg. How long had he suffered like this? A few hours? Days? All because of some carelessly disposed of fishing line.

I called out to Louise. “Go on ahead. I’ll take care of this!” I’d have to get the pelican to shore. Once again I hooked my arm around him, swimming toward the beach. I tried to maintain my hold as the ocean swells lifted us up and dropped us back down again. Just when we started getting somewhere, a large wave rose up. Normally, I’d just duck under, but not with the bird in my arms. I braced myself as the wave broke. I lost my grip on the bird. The wave sent me tumbling. Finally, I steadied myself. The bird fought against the rolling surf. I grabbed him by his massive beak. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t let you go again.”

Finally, I managed to get the pelican to dry land. I kneeled down and started to untangle the line. That’s when I saw a barbed fishing hook buried in the pelican’s beak. I can’t do this by myself. I heard a voice behind me. “Lynne, is he okay?” Louise asked, swimming in from the ocean.

Relieved, I yelled, “Quick, run to a house and find some scissors!” Louise ran up the beach. The bird stared up at me with glazed eyes. The poor thing looked like he was about to go into shock. “Hang on,” I said softly. “Help is on the way.”

Louise ran to several houses before she could find someone willing to help. She came running back down to the beach, leading a man carrying pliers. We got around the bird and managed to keep him still while the man snipped off the line and carefully removed the hook. Two more hooks were embedded in the bird’s feathers. We removed each one, the bird’s chest rising and falling rapidly the whole time. Finally the bird was free. We carried him to the water’s edge. Please help this little bird fly, I prayed silently. The pelican wobbled a bit, and took a glance back toward us. Then he pushed off the sand and rose into the blue sky. Louise and I thanked the man and dove back into the water to finish our swim—14 miles to go.

The entire time I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. I believe God gave us this world to use for our benefit, but also to care for. The earth and its waters are both a gift and a responsibility—a sacred responsibility. Sometimes it takes so little to make a difference. Like helping a pelican in distress. But did we make a difference? The salt water would help heal the pelican’s wounds, but would he be too weak to survive for long? I couldn’t help but wonder. I said a prayer for the pelican as I stroked through the sea.

We were near the end of our swim when a flock of pelicans flew overhead. One dipped low and landed beside us in the water. I glanced over. Can’t be… But there he was—the same pelican, with the gash on his leg. He swam beside us for the last mile, almost as if to say, “Thank you.” Then, with a flap of his wings, he rose and caught up with his friends flying up the coast, away toward the north. A creature much like me, in his natural element, at one with God’s world.


I love this story, but it’s not uncommon! Click here to read a similar story about a grateful whale who also thanked her rescuers.

We will never know what goes on inside an animal’s heart and mind, but it’s stories like these that illuminate the majesty and wonder of all God’s creatures!

Operation: Save the Whale is a success!





Click here to view all my animal-related posts.





Click here to view all the Guideposts stories on this blog.






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2 Responses to “The Pelican Grief”

  1. Nancy H C Says:

    THANK YOU, Lynne!

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Thanks for the comment, House Chores!

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