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Dolphins are seen trapped in a harbour in Heart's Delight, Nfld., in this undated handout photo.HO

People gathered on the shoreline of a small Newfoundland village cheered and honked their horns Thursday as a pod of dolphins trapped by pack ice were freed by the local fire chief and a friend, who used excavators 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.

“It was a big sigh of relief ... (and) everyone was quite happy that everything went as we wanted to,” said fire Chief Stan Legge. “There was a nice bit of cheering there, and the boys were barmping their horns a bit, and the boys in our fire truck ... set the siren off.”

Wayne Ledwell, head of the Whale Release and Strandings Group, said he was impressed with the community effort, saying the resulting celebration “was like a New Year’s Eve party.”

However, things looked grim only the day before.

On Wednesday, a change in wind direction had 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 wouldn’t be able 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, but carrying the dolphins to open water was considered a risky move.

But on Thursday at 5:30 a.m., after Ledwell and a group of neighbours stayed up all night monitoring the pod, someone came up with a better idea.

That’s when Legge and his friend swung into action, each using an excavator to pull chunks of ice around the head 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.”

But as the excavators clawed at the ice, the emerging channel kept closing.

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.

She said some residents had brought food for the dolphins, including shrimp.

“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.”

Ledwell said white-beaked dolphins are no strangers to the cold, ice-choked waters off Newfoundland and Labrador. He recalled working to save a pod that had been trapped in ice for more than two weeks.

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