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Two local residents approach one of the dolphins that had been stranded in ice near Seal Cove, in Newfoundland's White Bay.

Distressed by the suffering of a group of trapped dolphins, men in a small Newfoundland outport took matters into their own hands on Thursday and cut a path through ice in a bay.

The crew claims three dolphins — five of the mammals had been seen earlier this week in a small patch of open water near Seal Cove, White Bay, on the island's northeast coast — made it out safely to another area. The four men and a teenage boy counted four dolphins in the water when they started their effort, which involved towing one of the creatures with rope.

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This montage of photos by Joan Borden shows the attempt of five Seal Cove residents to rescue ice-stranded dolphins in their community. ((Courtesy of Joan Borden))

However, a whale rescue expert said the well-meaning effort may have actually endangered the dolphins, whose plight attracted international media attention this week.

"The people who went out in the boat thought they were doing good for the animals," said Wayne Ledwell, who arrived in Seal Cove on Thursday, but too late to prevent the crew from cutting through the ice.

"But, in actual fact, they may have hurried their demise."

Ledwell, who watched the rescue unfold from the shore with binoculars, said dolphins are usually frightened by motors. He said some of them scattered when the crew's motorboat approached the scene, and likely died after they swam away to an area under heavy ice.

Ledwell said he wished that the fishermen had waited. Apart from hoping that the wind would disperse the ice, he had been working with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans on a longer-term solution that would crack open the ice farther away in the bay, but without harming the dolphins.

Needed to take action

But Roger Gavin said he and other fishermen needed to take action immediately.

"They were beat right to death. They were exhausted," he said. "They [look] better now — they were out swimming around."

Using a small motorboat, the fishermen towed one dolphin with rope out to a wider patch of open water, albeit one which is still surrounded by ice.

Fisherman Melvin Rice said two more dolphins made it out on their own, although a fourth likely died.

Rice and his friends have no experience at this, but he said someone had to stop the animals' suffering. Residents in the area, and others who heard about the story through the media, had been calling on the Canadian Coast Guard to break the ice in the bay.

"Nighttime, they'd been crying and everything," Rice told CBC News.

"It'd be nice to try to get them out."

Federal fisheries officials had been reluctant to use an icebreaker, arguing that the action of cutting through the ice would actually have enclosed the small open area where the dolphins — which require access to air in order to survive — had been trapped.

Ledwell told CBC News that the dolphin that had been towed appeared to be in shock late Thursday.

However, onlooker Lydia Banks said the local crewmen are heroes.

"Everybody was sitting around saying, 'OK, somebody go save 'em,' " she said.

"Then when they got out there, everybody was saying they should've left them alone."

Residents in the area are hoping that a change in the wind on Friday will clear away ice leading to the open ocean.