Six or seven dolphins trapped by ice in the harbour at Heart’s Delight the past few days have had a lot of company.
Hundreds of people have been visiting the harbour to get a close-up look at the white-beaked dolphins circling in an area of open water just inside a new section of the break wharf constructed last year.
The mammals surface often with a small splash and the sound of air bursting through their blowholes.
On Tuesday, the first day of spring, a cold wind swept over the Trinity Bay town.
The ice in the harbour appeared to be the only pack ice (slob ice, the locals say) along the whole section of the coast — there’s open water just a few hundred feet off, but the dolphins can’t make their way through to it.
Resident Calvin Reid said if not for that new section of the break wharf the ice would have driven the dolphins into shore and they would have likely beached and died.
When Reid arrived at the harbour early Tuesday morning, the dolphins were confined to a small corner of the inner harbour, as most of the open area had frozen over during the night, he said.
Reid and three others — Wayne Ledwell of the Whale Release and Strandings Group in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, Desmond Reid and Tim Sooley — launched Sooley’s 18-foot fishing boat to break up the surface ice and to free up space for the dolphins.
“They couldn’t come up for air through that,” Reid said. “We got the boat in and busted up the ice to give them some more room to swim. They seemed to know what was going on.”
Reid said an easterly wind is needed to move the ice away, and that’s the best chance the dolphins have for survival. He said the dolphins don’t appear to be stressed, but onlookers can hear them loudly during the dark.
“You can hear them chirping in the night,” he said. “If a northeast wind comes we will be in trouble, so we are hoping for the best.”
Ledwell said there is not much his group can do unless the dolphins beach themselves. Then they could transfer the dolphins on a stretcher to a truck and transport them to an area that is ice-free.
He said if anyone attempts to capture the dolphins while they are swimming, it could force them into the pack ice, where they could become crushed or drown.
“There is no textbook plan,” Ledwell said. “People who know the area have gotten together here and are trying to figure out how to get the dolphins free. Unfortunately, pack ice is a natural mortality for dolphins. Our best hope is that the wind changes.”
People of all ages have been coming to the harbour in droves, both locals and visitors. All express concern about the dolphins’ survival. Many people have been taking photos and video, and curious children point and ask if the dolphins will be able to get out.
People have been trying to feed the dolphins by bringing caplin and fish from their freezers to toss into the water. It’s not known if the mammals are eating it.
Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officers were on the scene Tuesday monitoring the situation. A Canadian Coast Guard ship sat off the harbour, but could not cut a path though the ice because the water is too shallow. There was also concern the effort could make the ice conditions worse for the trapped dolphins.
Late in the afternoon the DFO officers launched a boat to break up the surface ice forming as the temperature dropped. They said they plan to do the same Wednesday morning if the ice forms overnight.
Vern Mercer has lived in Heart’s Delight for 40 years and has never seen this type of situation in the town before.
He said when he arrived at the wharf about 8 a.m. Tuesday, one of the dolphins had partially beached itself on the slipway. After a number of minutes there, it wiggled back into the water and rejoined the pod.
“It was like it was taking a rest,” Mercer said. “I took photos of it, and it just pushed itself back in the water.”