The sight of a bird drowning in Halifax harbour, tangled up in fishing line, was too much for Erik Nolan to witness.

The 23-year-old, who works at a waterfront restaurant, stripped down to his underwear and jumped into the chilly water Thursday afternoon to rescue the bird.

"I took my uniform off right away and jumped into the water. I swam out, made sure it wasn't going to attack me, that it was comfortable with my presence," said Nolan, a Calgary native, after he was back on dry land.

The bird, likely a juvenile seagull, was caught in a fishing line attached to a net between Murphy's restaurant and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

Erik Nolan

Erik Nolan was able to cut the bird free from the fishing line and bring it to shore. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Nolan said one of its webbed feet had been punctured by a hook, and the animal was struggling upside down with its beak slipping underwater. After assessing the bird's predicament, Nolan swam back to the wharf, borrowed a knife from a security guard and cut the bird's wing free. He also had to remove hooks from the bird's feet.

"After I cut it loose, I expected it to fly off, but it kind of just [lay] there," he said. "I thought, 'Oh, no, did I really just jump in the harbour to save a dead bird? Or did I kill it?"

Not a wasted effort

Then, a sign of life. 

"It stirred a little bit and then it actually turned its head towards me and stared at me."

Nolan said he doubts that the bird felt "thankful," but admits he hopes he and the seagull made a connection.

 "Part of me wanted to think it was meaningful look, but it might've just been in shock." 

Couldn't stand by and do nothing

Nolan said his sense of empathy prompted the rescue and it bothered him that a crowd was standing by and watching the bird drown.

He said he was very conscious of his own safety, but felt comfortable enough as a swimmer to make a rescue attempt. The man also survived the incident without any injury.

Nolan said the bird was transported by volunteers to be examined by veterinarians.

He said he later received a call to say the bird recovered quickly and was released.