Nova Scotia

'He got stronger and stronger': Paddleboarder describes guiding whale to sea

A paddleboarder who led an injured pilot whale to deep sea says he was "a little late to the party" and other people deserve more credit for the dramatic New Year's Day rescue.

Beached pilot whale has not been spotted since dramatic New Year's Day rescue

Rescuers use an inflatable raft to help get the whale out to sea. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

A paddleboarder who led an injured pilot whale to deep sea says he was "a little late to the party" and other people deserve more credit for the dramatic new years day rescue.

"I have to admit it was quite an experience to be that close to something that large," Todd King told CBC Radio's Maritime Noon.

King was one of more than 100 people who showed up at Rainbow Haven Beach outside of Dartmouth after someone reported the beached whale on Facebook. By the time he arrived, the large crowd had managed to get the animal onto a raft and into the water.

The tide was out, so members of the Marine Animal Response Society and other volunteers in wetsuits continued to push the whale hundreds of metres through the shallow water, stopping repeatedly as it got stuck on sandbars.

As they ferried the whale toward deep water, King grabbed his paddleboard just in case they needed help.

Helping the rescuers

The outside temperature was about –20 C with the windchill, and King estimates by the time he reached the group of  volunteers, they had been in the water for more than an hour.

"I was more concerned about the rescuers themselves."

Whale rescuers, just dots in the photo, had to guide the pilot whale a significant distance from shore because the tide was out. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Annette Thompson, an off-duty firefighter and former commercial diver, was one of two remaining people in the water along with Ben Hawkins. By that point, they had no flotation device and were trying to return to land, but there was a new challenge.

Pilot whales are extremely social creatures. This one had bonded to its rescuers.

"We righted him several times," Thompson said. "Ben and I stayed with him as long as we could. Unfortunately, he kept following us to shore."

'You could hear him breathe'

Thompson said it was like dealing with one of her dogs. 

"I kept saying to him, 'you can't come home with me, you have to go back,' and he'd just look at you and you could hear him breathe. It was just absolutely amazing."

Hawkins managed to separate from the animal first, but the whale stayed by Thompson's side. Finally, King on his paddleboard managed to get between the animal and his rescuer. 

​"Eventually — this is after three or four attempts — I got Annette into the reef at a point where she was safe," King said. The whale then started following King on his board, so he headed to deep, open water.

"Most of the time, I was at risk of hitting the whale with my paddle — that's how close he was," King said. "As we paddled along, he got stronger and stronger."

No more sightings

When they finally got about two kilometres away, the animal started swimming away.

"The whale just rolled on his side and looked me in the eye," King said.

Annette Thompson was off-duty from her job as a firefighter when she helped rescue the beached whale. She stayed with the animal in the water for more than an hour to make sure it was safe. (CBC)

Thompson was checked by paramedics when she finally got back to shore, but all she could think about was the whale. 

"It was the most exciting, most wonderful New Year's I've ever had," she said. 

There have been no sightings of the whale since, which rescuers hope is a sign it has rejoined its pod.

With files from Maritime Noon.