During a recent deployment in the eastern Pacific, Unites States Coast Guard officials managed to free an entangled sea turtle. It's a familiar-sounding rescue story ... except for one glaring difference: the unfortunate reptile wasn't mired in the expected mess of discarded fishing gear – instead, it had become trapped by 1,800 pounds of drifting cocaine. 

The extraordinary rescue took place in mid-November as part of "Operation Martillo", a collaborative anti-drug-trafficking initiative involving 18 partner nations. 

After being tipped off by a military plane, crews aboard the Key West-based Coast Guard vessel Thetis launched a small boat to investigate suspicious debris drifting in international waters. Among the contraband jetsam – a raft of drug bales with a combined street value of $53 million – they found the ailing turtle wrapped in 22 metres (75 ft) of connective rope.

Mission commander Mark Krebs and his team carefully cut the reptile free and hauled the line aboard to prevent other marine life from becoming similarly entangled. Based on the turtle's injuries, the team suspects it had been in the precarious situation for some time. Even at the surface, tangled sea turtles are at very high risk of drowning. 

"They saw significant chafing from the lines on his neck and flippers," said the Coast Guard in a press release. The animal reportedly swam off in strong condition, however, so there's a good chance its wounds healed up. 

When intercepted, drug smugglers will often toss illegal loads overboard to get rid of evidence. Ditched hauls are typically dropped with floatation devices so they can be retrieved later – and that means such rafts can bob along for months before being recovered. So while this rescue story might seem like a bizarre one, it's likely that similar entanglements happen more frequently than we realise. 

(Most sea turtles, however, become snared by more conventional means: the greatest threat facing the majority of species is our fishing gear. According to the World Wildlife Fund, hundreds of thousands of turtles are accidentally caught by gillnets, shrimp trawl nets and on longline hooks each year.) 

This isn't the first time a Coast Guard search of suspicious jetsam has turned up a tangled reptile. While patrolling a known drug-transit zone off the coast of Central America back in 2015, the local Coast Guard jumped into rescue mode when a "floating package" was revealed as two snared sea turtles instead: 


Top header image: Shutterstock