A team from the U.S. Coast Guard thought they were on the trail of drug smugglers last month, but they ended up with an even more rewarding mission: rescuing two sea turtles from ocean plastic.

The rescue began when the Coast Guard received a tip about a suspicious package floating in a known drug-transit zone off the west coast of Central America. A small boat from the Cutter Stratton was sent to investigate the suspected narcotics, which the guardsmen quickly realized was something else.

The package turned out to be a pair of sea turtles tangled in old fishing lines and buoys. This is a common problem for marine life worldwide, but sea turtles are especially vulnerable to marine debris. Not only do they eat plastic bags and become entangled in fishing lines, but being tethered to buoys can prevent them from diving. These turtles wouldn't have survived much longer without help.

"There was no question what we had to do," says Petty Officer 2nd Class Hylan Rousseau, the coxswain of Stratton's interceptor boat, in a Coast Guard press release about the rescue. "And no one spoke a word. We immediately moved into rescue mode."

The first turtle was an olive ridley, Stanford University researcher Dana Briscoe tells TakePart, and the second one was a loggerhead. Both are listed as endangered species by the U.S. government. The olive ridley wasn't particularly difficult to release, but the loggerhead provided a bit of a challenge.

"We cut the first turtle free without much incident. While we were freeing him, we could see the second, and much larger turtle, was quite literally choking to death," says Chief Petty Officer Brian Milcetich, a member of the law enforcement team. "He had been trying so hard to free himself from the fishing line that he had cinched the line around his own neck."

In the video above, the crew can be seen using scissors to cut away the line from the 70-pound loggerhead's neck. The turtle held remarkably still during the rescue, but wasted no time returning to the water when given a chance. The crew didn't seem to mind the unceremonious farewell. "Everyone was elated," Milcetich adds. "As you see in the video, he (the turtle) didn't stick around to celebrate."

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

U.S. Coast Guard saves sea turtles tangled in trash
A recent search for drug smugglers quickly became an even more urgent mission: saving two sea turtles from ocean plastic.