She squinted, trying to figure out if what she was seeing was real. Despite her many encounters with wildlife in all her years as a fisherwoman, this was something she had never seen before. She couldn’t even understand how it was possible. But she had to shake off the surprise and take some action. They hatched a plan to rescue the creature and set it into motion. But this mission was going to be harder than any of them thought.
Mallory Harrigan sees a lot of action in her day-to-day work. After all, she is a commercial fisherwoman--one of the hardest and most dangerous occupations a person can have. From hauling nets weighing hundreds of pounds to dealing with some of the least forgiving weather on the planet, commercial fishing is not for the weak of heart. Luckily for Mallory, the people she works with have her back. And they’re also willing to go the extra mile for other creatures.
Mallory, her boyfriend Cliff Russell, and Cliff’s brother Alan own a boat called the Northern Swan. This commercial fishing boat usually hunts for crab around the coast of Labrador, in the eastern Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Their main catch is snow crab, a species of crab prized for its sweet, delicate flavor. But fishing for this type of catch comes with its challenges. And though the Northern Swan’s crew thought they’d seen it all, they were about to be proved wrong.
The Arctic Institute
The snow crab’s habitat is the North Atlantic and the North Pacific--where the waters are icy and frigid. The snow crab fishing season begins in May, when the winter ice is finally starting to break up, allowing fishing boats to sail safely. But climate change has brought a curveball or two to the industry. Ice takes longer to melt and break in some areas, forcing fishermen to wait and lose precious time. That’s exactly what happened this year, and it led the Northern Swan to an unexpected adventure.
“We were off to a late start,” recalls Mallory. “But there had been an unusual amount of ice that prevented us from getting out.” When they finally set sail on June 22, they immediately headed for Pincent’s Arm, a small coastal town where they’d be able to fuel their gear. It was a pretty routine route for them but, unbeknownst to them, this day it was going to be different. When they were approximately 4 miles from land, they spotted something unusual on a piece of floating ice.
The first thing the fishermen saw was a band of seagulls hovering around the small iceberg. But there was something else there, too. From their current distance, all they could see was a grayish lump with a head that didn’t appear to be moving much. It was definitely an animal, but they couldn’t make out what it was. The fluttering birds also didn’t help with visibility. The boat’s crew decided to get closer to investigate.
At first, Mallory and the rest of the crew thought the creature was just a seal. After all, seals were one of the most common animals in the area. It would not be unusual to see a seal resting on floating ice in between hunts. But something didn’t feel right about that theory. Seagulls mostly left seals alone, but the birds seemed to be harassing this creature. And, as the boat drew nearer, the animal stay put. A seal would have slipped back into the ocean. That’s when the crew realized what it was.
The creature on the iceberg was none other than an arctic fox. The fishermen couldn’t contain their astonishment. Foxes were unheard of this far out to sea. But it was pretty obvious what had happened. The ice the fox was standing on must have broken off while it was busy hunting, then drifted out to sea leaving the animal stranded. It was quite a sorry sight. But what could the crew do about it?
The fishermen knew the fox wouldn’t survive on that piece of ice, nor would it be able to get back to land. But they were hesitant about letting it on their boat. “He’s a wild animal and we didn’t know how he’d react,” explained Mallory. That said, they couldn’t just leave it there to its sorry fate. So they pulled the boat closer to the iceberg. But the creature wasn’t going to make it easy for them.
The boat pulled up next to the piece of ice and the crew tried to lure the arctic fox to come close. But the poor creature was deathly afraid of them. It ran away to the farthest corner of the iceberg and wouldn’t come anywhere near. “He fought hard to try to get away,” remembers Mallory. This clearly wasn’t working. So the fishermen decided to try a different tactic.
The crew decided on a slightly riskier approach, but that might have better results. They broke off the chunk of ice where the fox was standing, forcing the animal into the water. Being expert fishermen, it wouldn’t be too hard to scoop the fox up with their dipnet--or so they thought. But the little creature had a different idea.
Still terrified, the arctic fox tried to swim away from the crew, unaware that they were actually trying to help him. But the water was ice cold, and the poor animal didn’t have much energy left. He soon became exhausted and finally let the fishermen scoop him up. That’s when Mallory and the rest of the crew truly realized the precarious state the fox was in.
“He crawled into a corner and curled into a ball. We tried to feed him chips and crackers, whatever we had on hand, but he wouldn’t eat for a long time,” Mallory recalls. Once the Northern Swan docked in Pincent’s Arm, Cliff and Alan made a makeshift bed for the fox using four fish pans and a layer of sawdust. They hoped it would help dry him off. It was at that point that the creature seemed to finally understand they were there to help.
“Once we got him in his makeshift bed he fell fast asleep,” said Mallory. The Northern Swan then traveled to the small island community of William’s Harbour, where they docked and waited for the fox to wake up. Hours later, he seemed to be in much higher spirits. “We were able to feed and water him,” says Mallory. “We gave him a tin of Vienna sausages and a bowl of water.” It looked like it was time to set him free.
The fishermen scooped up the fox and took him to an area that used to house sled dogs. “We put him into one of the old dog houses on the island and gave him some space,” explains Mallory. After exploring his surroundings, the animal took off into the hills. But that was not the last the crew saw of him. “We can still see him from time to time, running around the island chasing small animals.”