It was a chilly day off school for Brandon Banks. The 16-year-old's town of Seal Cove, Nfld., has had a harrowing week. Mr. Banks and his neighbours have gone to bed each night to the wails of five dolphins, who'd been trapped in a small and closing gap in the ice of the community's cove since the beginning of the week. "You could hear them, and see them going around in circles, and the circle just kept getting smaller and smaller," Mr. Banks said. The town had called for an icebreaker to free the white-beaked dolphins, only to be told that none were available, and even if one was, that it could push broken ice into the weakened mammals, further injuring or killing them. Yesterday, some of the dolphins had disappeared, feared dead. Four remained in the morning; by midday, it was three. "They wouldn't have survived another night," said Lydia Banks, Brandon's mother.
And so it was yesterday that the young Mr. Banks and four other locals hopped into a 17-foot fibreglass boat - with stainless steel propeller blades, it was a do-it-yourself icebreaker - to take the situation into their own hands in a five-hour rescue. They launched the boat into the icy cove, and set about clearing a way out for the dolphins.
They rocked back and forth against the ice, breaking it apart and working a small path 250 metres long into the enclosure while the three remaining dolphins circled around.
Once near them, Mr. Banks donned a red dry-suit and hopped into the frigid February ocean waters, face to face with the trapped dolphins to free them.
"It was real cold, but we didn't feel it because of the suits," he said.
In the boat, they carved out their path into the free ocean water. Two of the dolphins followed without trouble. The other two had left earlier - presumed freed or dead - and only one was left in the cove, weakened.
"Two got out through, and the next one was too tired," said the young Mr. Banks, who leapt into the water to hold onto the 180-kilogram dolphin, called a jumper by the locals.
"I kept him up with my legs, keep his head up from under the water."
Meanwhile, many people from the town lined the cove, taking in what was happening a couple of hundred metres out onto the ice.
"The dolphin just kind of attached to him and wrapped his flippers around him, more or less like a friend or a mate," Mayor Winston May told The Canadian Press.
Mr. Banks wrapped a rope around the jumper, and tied the rope to the boat. They towed him slowly through the ice, and once they hit open water, the weakened mammal caught its second wind.
They freed him from the rope, and the dolphin swam off.
"He was just getting his energy back, and he was swimming around," Mr. Banks said. "It was pretty good seeing him go off free like that, in the open water."
White-beaked dolphins are year-round visitors to the waters around Newfoundland, including in Seal Cove, a town of 300 about 600 kilometres northwest of St. John's.
Experts say many animals get trapped and die in the province's many coves.
In 1983, a particularly bad year, some 300 were trapped in more than a dozen separate incidents around Newfoundland.
Earlier in the day, Wayne Ledwell, a whale-rescue expert who went to Seal Cove, said he believed at least two of the dolphins had died after being frightened off by the initial rescue attempt.
But yesterday, after saving the three dolphins, the crew came back heroes. Mr. May called it "a real nice ending." Mr. Banks, who had the day off his Grade 10 classes from school, was exhausted and immediately had a warm bowl of soup, "something me grandmother made," he said.
The phone at the family home was ringing off the hook while his friends posted dozens of their photos online. A reticent Mr. Banks took it in stride, while his mother seemed to be bursting with pride. "It's something you'll always remember."