A pod of dolphins trapped by pack ice in a Newfoundland harbour were freed Thursday by the local fire chief, who used an excavator to clear a channel for the stranded animals.
The group of white-beaked dolphins, stuck in a small pool of sea water just off Heart’s Delight since Sunday, lost their way at first – and then sprinted for the open waters of Trinity Bay as local residents cheered them on.
“They were all clapping and blowing horns,” said Wayne Ledwell, head of the Whale Release and Strandings Group.
“It was like a New Year’s Eve party … but it could have gone the other way.”
On Thursday, a change in wind direction pushed the ice closer to shore, shrinking the opening where the dolphins were stuck swimming in circles.
Ledwell said there was a plan to use a Fisheries Department patrol boat to smash through the ice, but there were concerns the dolphins would either beach themselves in the commotion or get lost under the ice, where they would be unable to breath.
“All this time we were worried these animals would be pushed ashore,” he said.
He said volunteers were ready with nets and trucks if the dolphins came ashore, but carrying them to open water was considered a risky move.
But at 5:30 a.m., after Ledwell and a group of neighbours stayed up all night monitoring the dolphins, someone came up with a better idea.
Fire Chief Stan Legge swung into action, using an excavator to pull chunks of ice around the end of the town’s wharf, relieving some of the pressure on the ice still stuck in the harbour.
“It was community ingenuity,” said Ledwell, who has been rescuing whales and other species for more than 30 years. “We all worked together.”
Another excavator was called in, but it was difficult to keep the emerging channel open.
WATCH: Pod of dolphins follow B.C. ferry
Then the wind again changed direction and the patrol boat moved the last few chunks of ice out of the way, Ledwell said.
At first, the eight dolphins – a group of males, females and a few calves – seemed to lose their way.
But they regrouped and escaped amid wild cheers from shore.
“The big guy – the lead guy – led the way,” Ledwell said in an interview, his voice hoarse with exhaustion. “What an amazing effort and what an amazing group of people down here.”
Fisheries Department spokesman Kevin Guest said the dolphins appeared to be healthy despite their ordeal.
Local resident Verna Chislett said the town’s 200 residents were transfixed by the ongoing drama.
“It was sad to see them cornered in so close to shore,” she said shortly after the dolphins were freed.
“Everybody was so intense, looking at these poor little dolphins getting caught in here … Everyone is relieved that they’re gone back to nature, where they should be.”