Swimming eagle rescued by Maine lobstermen

In the annals of odd lobster-fishing tales, the one that unfolded aboard the “Theresa Anne” for John Chipman Jr. and his sternman, Kevin Meaney, last week is a one for the ages.

A bald eagle dries out onboard the lobster boat “Theresa Anne” after it was rescued from the Atlantic Ocean off Birch Harbor on July 27, 2017. The lobstermen — John Chipman Jr. and Kevin Meaney — tied the top of the bait box to a life ring, creating a life raft for the swimming eagle to perch on. (Photo by John Chipman Jr.)

Not only did the duo get an up-close look at a swimming bald eagle on July 27, they also took the opportunity to offer the eagle a helping hand. Their actions likely saved the eagle’s life, according to the wildlife biologist who serves as Maine’s bird group leader.

Chipman, who lives in Birch Harbor, said he has been on the water for 45 years, and had never seen a bald eagle swimming in the Atlantic Ocean before, When he spotted the eagle struggling through the water off Schoodic Island last week, he knew it needed help.

“I knew it wasn’t going to make it,” Chipman said. “It wasn’t really a long way from land, but for him to swim that far? It would have been a long way for him to go.”

The bird was laboring in the water, taking large strokes with both wings at the same time, much like a person would do if they were trying to do the butterfly stroke. And it showed signs of a past battle: The bird had only one eye.

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In a video that Chipman shot, the eagle swims slowly, but steadily. At one point, however, it simply stops paddling and decides to float for a bit.

“He kept stopping, and he tried to jump up on a lobster buoy. He couldn’t balance himself and he kept falling back off,” Chipman said. “I immediately went over when we saw him, and tried to steer him toward land, but I could see he was getting tired.”

And his sternman made his position clear.

“I told Johnny, ‘We’re not leaving him,’” Meaney said. “Then it swam toward the boat and tried to climb up.”

Meaney reached for the throw ring and tossed it into the water to see if the waterlogged eagle could perch on that. The eagle was interested, but the instability of the ring made the bird topple off.

That’s when Meaney got inventive.

“I took the cover off the bait tank and tied it on [to the life ring], and made him a little life raft, He got right on it,” Meaney said. “I kind of reached down, patted the top of his head, and told him it would be all right.”

Meaney is a retired police officer from Michigan, and his former partner, Michelle Ritzema, was on board that day. That proved helpful, as she helped Meaney get the eagle onto the boat.

“Michelle grabbed onto my belt so I wouldn’t go overboard, and I picked up the whole raft, with him on it,” Meaney said. “He just looked at me and never moved.”

The eagle stood on the life raft, which was perched on the stern of the boat, for about 40 minutes before drying out and warming up enough to try to fly.

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“My wife [had] called the game warden, and he got in touch with me, and I told him I was bringing [the eagle] into Bunkers Harbor,” Chipman said. “But before I made it to the harbor, [the bird] took off on his own.”

Ritzema shot the video of the bird taking wing, which was also featured on the Instagram account of Chipman’s wife, Theresa Chipman.

Chipman watched the bird fly to the mainland and perch on a high ledge away from the water. At that point, he and Meaney got back to work.

“We went back to hauling [traps],” Chipman said. “When we went back into the harbor later on, I looked at the location he had landed, and he was gone, after a little more drying off and resting.”

Brad Allen, a biologist who leads the bird group for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the eagle likely ended up in the water while trying to catch a fish or duck. If the bird ended up making too much contact with the water, it would have been difficult for it to get out of the ocean again.

And once in the water, the eagle faced some serious trouble.

“That cold ocean water can be very hard on them, and likely then hypothermia [could have set in],” Allen said in an email. “[The fishermen] probably saved the eagle’s life if he couldn’t have found a nearby shore to climb out on eventually.”

Allen said that eagles aren’t outstanding swimmers, but sometimes do end up in the water.

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“They do what they have to do to survive,” Allen said. “I truly appreciate the lobstermen’s assistance. It’s nice to know that people care that much to lend a hand.”

And Meaney said he was happy to have the chance to help.

“It was the most incredible thing that ever happened to me,” Meaney said. “To me, that was worth well more than hitting the lottery.”

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