Dolphins freed from thick ice, but whale dies

A humpback whale is shown trapped in the icy waters off Old Perlican, N.L. in a handout photo. Residents of a Newfoundland island have managed to pluck at least three dolphins out of thick pack ice and carry them to open water, even as hope fades for a humpback whale trapped in a cove not far away. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Mary Lou Riggs MANDATORY CREDIT

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Residents of a Newfoundland island have managed to pluck five dolphins out of thick pack ice and carry them to open water, but a humpback whale has died after becoming trapped in ice in a nearby cove.

The dolphins had become trapped in a small bay near St. John’s over the weekend.

Resident Lisa Gear said about 25 people were involved in a rescue effort Monday that involved venturing out onto the ice off Bell Island, freeing the dolphins from the ice, placing them onto a tarp stretcher, loading them on a truck and then releasing them into an ice-free inlet nearby.

“Arctic ice is still there at the … opening to the ocean but they have some room and we hope this ice moves out quickly. They have much more room where they are now. At least a fighting chance. Not out of the woods but in a clearing,” Gear said Monday afternoon.

Despite a blizzard that was raging around them, she said that they had successfully freed five of what are believed to be white-beaked dolphins.

About 11 had been initially spotted over the weekend, but the rest are believed to have died, including one during the rescue attempt.

“There were only about eight still alive this morning,” Gear said. “It’s really heartbreaking … but there’s a huge community involvement. It’s unbelievable now the people who are pitching in and coming out.”

Gear said her husband had checked on the dolphins about four times Sunday night and then again Monday morning after they had been discovered late Saturday. She said they could hear the sound of the dolphins’ laboured breathing Sunday evening.

Wabana Mayor Gary Gosine said the island had experienced unusually thick ice that had also slowed the ferry that services the island. He said it’s been about seven years since they’ve seen ice so much in the area.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said about the trapped dolphins.

Thick ice had also trapped a large humpback whale in Cook’s Cove near Old Perlican, N.L., which has now died.

Wayne Ledwell of the Whale Release and Strandings group said the ice was too thick to navigate with an icebreaker to free the whale after it became trapped Friday. He said the roughly 14-metre adult whale had appeared to be having trouble breathing, based on the noise it was making. There was also a lot of blood on the ice where he had become stuck.

Margie Hopkins, Old Perlican’s town manager, said people were having trouble reaching the whale Monday because of the blizzard-like conditions. She said the ice had moved out, but the whale didn’t leave.

“There was no ice around him last night,” she said. “I’d say he was beached and really fatigued and didn’t have what it took to get out of it.”

She said the whale had been making “eerie” sounds that seemed to indicate it was in distress.

“It was like someone in distress,” she said. “It’s just a high-piercing, heart-tugging noise. It really sticks to you. It’s like a baby whining.”

A report from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans says there were two instances of large groups of animals becoming trapped and dying in pack ice in 2014 — one involving nine blue whales and the other involving 40 white-beaked dolphins.

– By Alison Auld in Halifax