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Heroic deckhand swims to the rescue of endangered leatherback turtle

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Leatherback turtle struggles with kelp wrapped around its flipper and neck.

A giant leatherback turtle entangled in kelp off Southern California was rescued Sunday by a heroic deckhand armed with a fillet knife.

Jason Kunewa and Capt. Bo Daniels were aboard the Dana Wharf Whale Watching vessel San Mateo, about 15 miles offshore, when they spotted a large kelp paddy on the surface.

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"Then I saw a head come out," Kunewa, the deckhand, told GrindTV. "It was the biggest turtle I'd ever seen. It was longer than me and about three times as wide."

The 6-foot-long turtle, weighing perhaps 1,000 pounds, was dragging the paddy and swimming sluggishly. Its neck and front left flipper were tightly wrapped with strands of kelp.

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Jason Kunewa uses a fillet knife to cut kelp wrapped around leatherback turtle’s flipper and neck.

Kunewa quickly grabbed a fillet knife and jumped into the chilly water, and said later that he could not have caught up to the turtle if it weren't entangled.

He reached the trailing end of the kelp and cut most of the mass away (not seen in the video). He then more carefully cut the strands around the flipper.

That loosened the strands from the turtle's neck, at which point the freed reptile bolted "like a bat out of hell."

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Leatherback turtle takes off “like a bat out of hell” after being freed.

Leatherback turtles, whose evolutionary roots date back 100 million years, are the largest turtles on the planet. They can measure nearly 10 feet and weigh 2,000 pounds.

They're found in tropical and temperate waters around the world, mostly in pelagic zones, where they feed on sea jellies (they can dive to depths of 4,000 feet).

Leatherback turtles are federally endangered, and sightings off Southern California are rare.

Kunewa, who is native Hawaiian, believes that sea turtles are amakua, a sacred family good, and boasts a “honu” tattoo on his arm.

He told CBS Los Angeles: “I kind of felt like it knew I was there to help him."

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