When Eagles Fall: A Happy Rescue Story

“It was tough to watch such an amazing creature taking its last breaths. I feel that directly interacting with wildlife should always be avoided except for rare occasions where there is no unforeseen negative impacts. This was one of those times.” – Paul Nicklen

It was August 21, 2016 when SeaLegacy co-founder Paul Nicklen and boat captain Kelly Aspinall came upon a swimming eagle on the north side of Christie Passage, which is located in the Gordon Group off Vancouver Island, B.C. Eagles often end up in the water from trying to capture prey that is too large, or from locking talons while fighting. "Based off what i’ve seen in this spot plus the number of eagles on the area I would say it was likely a misjudged dive on baitfish." recalls Aspinall. 

In this passage of water there are strong currents that often force schools of herring and needlefish to the surface. "It’s the only area where we regularly see groups of 50 to 100 bald eagles aggressively diving at small pockets of bait." says Aspinall. "During this fierce feeding it’s not uncommon to see eagles misjudge their dives or collide and end up in the water."

Typically they are able to lift themselves out of the water or swim to shore where they can dry themselves. This particular bird was fighting a large tide. It was clear it would not survive much longer. In addition to the tide, it was being repeatedly attacked by other eagles taking advantage of its vulnerability. The crew observed this event for a period of time until the attacking eagles moved on, leaving the struggling eagle to continue drifting offshore. 

Once the decision to rescue the struggling eagle was made, however, the larger question of how to pull a fierce bird of prey out of the ocean and onto a small boat proved difficult. 

“It was tough to watch such an amazing creature taking its last breaths." said Nicklen about the encounter, who believes humans shouldn't act intrusive in these matters. "I feel that directly interacting with wildlife should always be avoided, except for rare occasions where there is no unforeseen negative impacts. Everyone in the boat agreed this was one of those occasions and that rescuing the eagle was the right thing to do.”

Once the decision to rescue the struggling eagle was made, however, the larger question of how to pull a fierce bird of prey out of the ocean and onto a small boat proved difficult. 

“The gloves we had were no match for the animals powerful talons." said Aspinall. "We knew that if it locked in there was going to be some serious damage.” 

Although it was extremely fatigued, when I tried to lift it from the water it aggressively defended itself with its talons, beak and wings." recalls Aspinall. "I was able to make a lucky grab with one hand behind its head and another across the body. When I lifted it into the boat, the eagle locked its talons onto the rail, where it calmly rested for the ride to the beach.”

Once the rescuers released the bird back onto solid ground, the exhausted eagle was still unable to fly. He slowly hopped up the rocks to a patch of sun, most likely relieved to be back on the lighter side of life.   

Mike BerardComment