The omens were bad for an increasingly distressed and malnourished bottlenosed dolphin which has been trapped in a Cumbrian tidal harbour for the past month. Conservationists attempting a rescue feared that they would have to put the creature down.
But, in a "fairy-tale ending" the dolphin, nicknamed Marra by villagers in Maryport, survived the two-hour rescue and swam off with another dolphin it encountered in the Irish Sea.
The outcome was a huge relief for British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), nine days after their efforts to save the Thames whale ended in the animal's death.
Yesterday's operation, watched by a 1,000-strong crowd, followed several unsuccessful attempts to coax the dolphin out of Maryport harbour's narrow entrance and into the open sea. Conservationists had been using a "bubble wall" - a sophisticated rescue device with a compressor and a length of weighted hose with holes cut at strategic places. It was hoped that the curtain of bubbles this created would force the creature to swim over the harbour's lock gates.
But Marra was frightened of the mechanism of the harbour gates, which are regularly opened and closed, and could not be persuaded to cross them. Trapped inside the harbour, its skin discolouration showed it was being bleached by a lack of salt water. It was also losing weight and, by yesterday, had started to swim endlessly up and down the wall of the harbour - a behaviour pattern typical of an animal in captivity.
A vet examined the dolphin yesterday morning and soon after high tide at 2pm, the harbour was allowed to drain, leaving the dolphin in a shallow pool. This allowed three divers to catch the mammal in a soft net.
The visibly terrified dolphin was brought under control on a stretcher and, after final medical checks, winched out of the harbour on to a waiting trailer which transported it to a rigid inflatable boat for removal one mile out to sea. Then came what one BDMLR leader described as "the fairy-tale bit". Once out of the harbour, the dolphin was seen to dive four times before meeting up with another dolphin which promptly appeared. The two were last seen heading out to deep water.
"The encounter with another dolphin was not expected at all," said Tony Woodley, BDMLR director. "I can't comment on whether the second one was related but that they should have met up so quickly is quite remarkable, just tremendous."
For the residents who had grown used to seeing the dolphin in the harbour, its struggle caused anxiety. "It was really upsetting for everyone seeing Marra struggle the way he did, said Julie Hetherington. "The whole town will miss him. He's brought the community closer together."
Such was of Marra's deterioration that conservationists had warned that it might have to be put down.
Mr Woodley said: "This operation, which used similar techniques to those we deployed in the Thames, shows that not all rescues have an unhappy ending."Reuse content