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Freeing dolphins in Heart's Delight was result of teamwork and local ingenuity, says whale rescuer

As a small pod of dolphins gradually made their way through loosened pack ice to the freedom of open water Thursday afternoon in Heart’s Delight, they were being spurred on by the many onlookers.

“Come on! Go! Go!” one lady shouted.

And when the seven or so white-beaked dolphins finally surfaced past the edge of the ice with nothing but clear water ahead of them, there erupted loud cheers and sirens, hugs, hand-clapping and high-fives.

The dolphins that had captured the hearts of so many in the small Trinity Bay community and beyond were finally free.

“This is a prime example of local ingenuity figuring things out, and to a number of groups working great together,” said Wayne Ledwell, of the Whale Release and Strandings Group based in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s.

“Nothing like this has been done anywhere. No one else deals with ice entrapment like we do. It’s unique to Newfoundland and Labrador, and unique is the expertise in these rural communities.

“With the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, our group, the local residents, the fire department — everybody was in on this here, and the guys had their immersion suits on and ready to go out to help the dolphins. There were local people giving advice on the winds and tides, and there were people cooking food for us in the fire hall. All of this was pretty amazing.”

The white-beaked dolphins became trapped in the harbour by a few hundred feet of pack ice last weekend.

“This is a prime example of local ingenuity figuring things out, and to a number of groups working great together. Nothing like this has been done anywhere. No one else deals with ice entrapment like we do. It’s unique to Newfoundland and Labrador, and unique is the expertise in these rural communities."
Wayne Ledwell,  Whale Release and Strandings Group, based in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s

Resident Calvin Reid said an extension built last year to the breakwater wharf provided enough of a barrier to allow for an open area of water inside, where the dolphins were able to swim.

That open area, however, started to freeze over in the evenings as the temperature dropped. Local residents in a fishing boat, and later a DFO boat as well, broke up that surface ice to give the dolphins as much room as possible.

In the meantime, many residents brought fish and caplin from their freezers and tossed it in the water to try to feed the dolphins because there was no food available for them in the shallow harbour.

As the days passed, hundreds of people — both local residents and visitors — gathered around the harbour taking photos and hoping for the dolphins’ safe escape.

On Wednesday eight fisheries officers, an equal number of local residents and Ledwell remained at the harbour throughout the night in fear that the ice would move in and force the dolphins to beach themselves. If that happened, the groups were ready to capture them and transport them by stretchers to waiting trucks, which would take them to a nearby ice-free cove for release.

With a more favourable wind Thursday morning, the collective minds of all involved decided to take action. The ice outside the harbour started to move away in the current, so it was decided to get excavators onto the breakwater wharf to push ice outside. The DFO boat and a local speedboat were used to push ice toward the excavators.

Gradually the harbour began to clear, but some ice started to move in on the dolphins which, by that time, was confined to a small, shallow corner of the harbour.

Fisheries officers, Ledwell and local residents grabbed steel poles and wood to move pans of ice, and used a small grapnel to help move floating wharf mooring lines out of the way.

Stanley Legge, owner of SGL Construction Ltd. of Heart’s Delight, who is also the local fire department chief, said he got a call from his friend Randy Sooley early in the morning to see if he would bring an excavator to the wharf.

“We brought one machine down, and Randy actually volunteered his time to operate the excavator, and then I talked to the fisheries officers there and suggested I could bring in a second excavator to try to speed up the process, and that’s what we did,” Legge said.

“The ice was pushed toward the wharf and the excavators were pushing it around the head of the wharf and lifting some over the wharf, where a favourable wind outside the harbour carried it away.”

Legge said fire department members were ready to help in any way they could. They also opened the fire hall, where local women prepared coffee and food.

“We opened our fire hall here to the fisheries personnel to have a place to go get a coffee and warm up, and let them use it as a base, because it is right across the road here (by the harbour),” he said.

“We helped to look after some traffic and we had our ice-water rescue crew on standby in case something went wrong.”

DFO issued a statement thanking the community for the “tremendous co-operation and assistance” and hospitality shown to its officers.

Longtime Heart’s Delight resident Vern Mercer spent a lot of time at the harbour during the past week, arriving at daybreak each morning to check on the dolphins and take photos.

Mercer said he has never seen so much activity in the harbour as there has been this week.

Like other residents and bystanders, he became worried as the dolphins appeared to start showing stress as the ice moved in on them, leaving them in a small pool with about four feet of water.

When the ice separated, however, and the boats moved aside to allow the dolphins to swim out, Mercer was thrilled.

“This is great,” he said. “What a great job they did.”

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