SEAL COVE, N.L. - The mayor of this small coastal village in western Newfoundland pleaded with the federal Fisheries Department on Wednesday to send an icebreaker into the community's harbour to rescue five dolphins trapped behind drifting pack ice.
Winston May said the white-beaked dolphins appeared exhausted and distraught after being stuck in a shrinking area of open water for the past four days.
"They're not going to survive much longer," May said in an interview from a local convenience store. "They're just non-stop. They're just beatin' themselves out."
He said the plight of the animals has left the town's children feeling anxious.
"You can hear (the dolphins) crying all night long," he said. "The local residents don't get no sleep. ... All the kids are familiar with Flipper and the Walt Disney movies."
The dolphins were swimming in an oval-shaped hole that was about 30 metres by 200 metres.
Dolphins need open water to breathe, and the mayor said there's about 500 metres of ice blocking their escape into White Bay.
"Where they're so tired, I don't think they could make the swim."
No one in the town of 400 has a boat big enough to break through the so-called slob ice, a thick carpet of slush and frozen chunks the size of dinner tables.
Officials with the Fisheries Department couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday, but May said the department told him no boats were available.
The wind had shifted to the north on Tuesday, clearing a larger icefield from the bay. However, a northeast wind is needed to clear the harbour, May said.
Wayne Ledwell, an expert on rescuing trapped whales, said it's not unusual for this type of dolphin to get stranded.
"This is natural mortality for these animals in our waters," he said. "Many animals die that we know of, and who knows what happens out in the ocean when there's a lot of ice?"
In 1983, a particularly bad year, some 300 were trapped in more than a dozen separate incidents around Newfoundland.
More recently, 14 of the animals were trapped in Trinity Bay in 2005, according to statistics compiled by Ledwell's non-profit group, Whale Release and Strandings, based in St. Phillips, N.L.
"They're smart animals, but they make mistakes and it can be costly to them," he said. "We've had situations where stray humpback (whales) have been trapped in ice, and all sorts of other animals."
Typically, about half of the animals trapped in this way survive, Ledwell said.
As well, the ice can sometimes drive whales and dolphins onto the shore, where they have little chance of survival unless they can be carried to open water.
In this case, the dolphins are in the middle of a semi-circular harbour, where it would be very difficult to reach them.
As well, using a boat to open a channel presents its own risks, mainly because the boat could crush the animals or the channel could quickly fill with ice as the vessel retreats.
Ledwell said the Fisheries Department told him the closest icebreaker was recently dispatched to help a fishing boat in distress about 100 kilometres off Newfoundland's east coast.
White-beaked dolphins are year-round visitors to the waters around Newfoundland.
They are typically about 2.5 metres long, weigh about 180 kilograms and are dark grey to black around their dorsal fin, with a white blaze that extends from their eyes to their flanks.
Seal Cove is on the western side of the Baie Verte Peninsula, about 400 kilometres northwest of St. John's.