Matthew Funaro and David Goldstein, police officers with Suffolk County's Marine Bureau, were on routine patrol on Long Island Sound when the urgent call came in.
"We pulled up and saw this very large turtle trapped in a couple of lobster pot lines," Funaro said Tuesday.
The leatherback sea turtle, an endangered species, was at least 6 feet long and 1,000 pounds. And it became more tangled as it grew more agitated, Funaro said.
He found it Monday about 8:40 p.m. a mile north of the Mount Sinai Harbor, guided by a call from pleasure boaters to the U.S. Coast Guard.
"We're used to helping humans," he said. "As far as sea turtles go, this is a first for us."
So they called in the experts.
Kimberly Durham and Julika Wocial, of the Riverhead Foundation's Rescue Program, arrived with a second boat of Suffolk Marine Bureau officers shortly after 10 p.m.
Funaro said the turtle was tangled in as many as three lines at one point, and "started really, really splashing and thrashing and -- its front flippers are very long -- it completely soaked my partner."
Durham, a biologist and the rescue program's director, said the female leatherback's panicked state freed it somewhat, but created another challenge.
"Because she had removed some of the gear that was holding her down, she was able to dive," Durham said.
Rescuers, as part of a three-hour test of patience, cut their engines each time the frightened turtle submerged -- to keep from hitting her with their boats and to listen for the moment she came up for air.
"It was kind of anchored sort of in place, but it was able to dive down and pop up in different places in a 50- to 75-foot area," Funaro explained.
Durham and Wocial, whose group rescued another leatherback off Montauk on July 11, knew better than to simply snip all the lobster pot lines.
"It's like a puzzle," Durham said. "You try to figure out if you can disentangle them without cutting anything at all. If you cut the wrong line . . . she's free, but she has all this gear wrapped around her and swims off in worse shape."
The turtle, which Durham said is of mature, breeding age and which Funaro joked about naming after cartoon characters "Franklin" or "Michelangelo," was exhausted, they said.
The turtle ultimately "did an alligator roll and as a result untangled herself," Durham said.
The rescuers cut just one line to free her shortly after midnight, they said.
"She felt the change in the tension and the weight, and she took off, vroom," Durham said. "We never saw her again."
Durham said she thinks the turtle is unharmed, having suffered no major lacerations.
She said leatherbacks will be a familiar sight this summer and fall in the Long Island Sound, where they come to feast on the influx of jellyfish.
With John Valenti