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Photographer Trevor Kennedy called the mission to save a whale at Rainbow Haven Beach ‘a real organic, selfless movement of people.’Trevor Kennedy

Dozens of Nova Scotians – police, firefighters, surfers, but mostly, ordinary residents – spent their New Year's Day using "people power" to save a beached whale, pulling it back to sea with their hands to save it from death by exposure to the cold.

The impromptu rescue effort occurred Monday at Rainbow Haven Beach, east of Halifax, after a person discovered a pilot whale had run aground overnight.

News of the marine mammal's plight spread fast on Facebook, and via word of mouth. As pictures of the beached whale, praying-hand emojis and appeals for help popped up on smartphones, more than 100 people came to the beach with shovels and blankets to do all they could; even as temperatures hovered at around minus 10 C and frigid tidewaters washed out of the shallow, sand-banked bay.

"There was this massive movement of people who converged on the beach during winter. That was the awesome part," said Trevor Kennedy, a local photographer who captured some of the action. He called the spontaneous mission "a real organic, selfless movement of people."

Although the rescue effort centred on only one whale – and a relatively small one at that – it strikes a hopeful note for 2018. Last year, regional news often centred on the discovery of dead whales. That included the mysterious deaths of a dozen much more massive, and nearly extinct, North Atlantic right whales.

Last year "was a tough year," said Andrew Reid, response co-ordinator for Halifax-based Marine Animal Response Society (MARS). "It was definitely one of the busiest years we have had. Hopefully, 2018 is going to be quiet. But it's starting off a good year."

He was among those at the scene on Monday, coaching the crowd in how to help out the pilot whale.

Such rescues are rare and sporadic, Mr. Reid said, as he described the creature as a mature male. Because such whales can weigh around 2,000 kilograms, talk at the beach initially turned to whether some sort of machine – a four-wheeler, a boat, a construction machine – could be used to help drag it back to sea.

But as the crowd grew, people soon realized they wouldn't need such devices. They had enough hands to do the job themselves.

"We were discussing our options – were we waiting for the tide? Or trying to get an excavator down there?" Mr. Reid recalled. "… But within probably half an hour or 40 minutes, we had 100 people there.

"We potentially could have made it comfortable and waited for the tide, but we had the people power, and didn't have to wait."

Mr. Reid explained that time is often of the essence in such cases. The pilot whale showed no signs of trauma. But when a whale is beached, its organs can start to be slowly crushed by its own weight. Plus, if left in the cold air, a whale risks frostbite and freezing, especially to its fins and tail.

By noon, scads of volunteers were shovelling sand to create a path back to sea. But worries were still mounting; one representative Facebook post, shared more than 2,000 times, put it this way: "Updated 11:45am, he's still alive but still out of water. … any free hands close by?"

Rescuers brought in a "refloatation pontoon" – an inflatable raft, essentially – and placed it under the whale. For this, the whale had to be rolled and people were warned to stay out of range of its tail if it started to thrash.

A few dozen people then pulled the pontoon off the beach and back out into the ocean, so that the whale could start swimming again. As waters got deeper, the job was taken over by about a half-dozen surfers who had arrived to the scene wearing wetsuits. They then helped the creature to navigate past the sandbars in shallow waters that had closed it in during the low tide.

And that's all that's really known of the whale's story. Pilot whales travel in family groups, so it's not clear why this one was found alone on a beach. Nor can anyone say whether he will rejoin his clan.

"It would be quite difficult to meet up with his pod," Mr. Reid conceded. Still, he added, seeing the way people converged to rescue the whale was heartwarming. "We really relied on the local community who came out in quite huge numbers."

Twelve right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017 and scientist did necropsies to find out why. The 2017 deaths prompted Ottawa to implement a number of measures to help prevent further whale deaths but recently some of the measures were eased.

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