The Coast Guard wasn't fishing for sea turtles and using cocaine as bait. This isn't 'King of the Hill.' The Coast Guard was searching for cocaine smugglers, and they found a sea turtle swimming with $53 million worth of the stuff.
The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Thetis was just doing their thing in November, 2017, hunting smugglers and mapping America's puddles (or whatever it is they do), when they came across the ultimate smuggler: an ancient sea monster with $53 million of drugs in tow.
USCGC Thetis transits past the USCGC Tampa Bay in Key West.
(U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Lisa Ferdinando)
The Coast Guard first spotted the drugs with an Over The Horizon small boat, identifying it as a debris patch with contraband likely in it. When the pursuit mission commander arrived at the debris field, he identified both the cocaine and a sea turtle caught in the middle of it.
Despite catching the sea turtle swimming with bales of contraband on it, the commander kept an open mind about whether or not the sea turtle was involved in the underlying crime.
A crewman from the USCGC Thetis prepares to cut a sea turtle free of bales of cocaine.
The Coast Guardsmen identified chaffing on the sea turtle and went to render aid. Speaking of which, seriously guys —do not leave trash lines in the ocean. Slowly dying of infection from chaffing or starvation because you can't hunt is a horrible way to go.
The Coast Guardsmen cut the turtle free and allowed it to swim away without further investigation, instead concentrating on recovering what turned out to be 1,800 pounds of cocaine valued at $53 million. They also recovered the 75 feet of lines and cords which would've been a persistent threat to sea turtles and other wildlife.
For some reason, these are the best photos the Coast Guard released of the sea turtle rescue. Not sure if all Coast Guardsmen are limited to smart phones from 2008 or what, but we would include better photos if we had them.
(U.S. Coast Guard)
The encounter was part of Operation Martillo, and USCGC Thetis was on a 68-day patrol where the Coast Guard and its partners ultimately captured $135 million worth of drugs, mostly cocaine and marijuana.
While the Coast Guard is often mocked as being not real military or being "puddle pirates" (see the intro paragraph), the service does amazing work in the Pacific, capturing massive amounts of drugs otherwise destined for illegal U.S. markets. For the past few years, they've captured three times as many drugs at sea as the rest of law enforcement has captured within the U.S. and at all land borders.
USCGC Thetis arrives in Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in 2010.
(U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Bill Mesta)
And the Coast Guard has done this while being dramatically under-resourced for such a large mission. They can often only put three cutters onto the mission at a time, and are only able to interdict 20 to 25 percent of the seaborne drugs headed into the country.
As one Coast Guard officer put it to Men's Journal, "imagine a police force trying to cover the entire U.S. with three cars. That's the tactical problem we're trying to solve."
The U.S. isn't the only country involved in the efforts. Operation Martillo has been going on since 2012 and has member countries from South America and Europe, and Canadian forces were part of the sea turtle rescue. SOUTHCOM says the operation has scooped up over 693 metric tons of cocaine, nearly 600 sea vessels and aircraft, and nearly 2,000 smugglers since it was launched in early 2012. It's also nabbed $25 million in bulk cash.