This bald eagle was in bad shape when boaters rescued it, but has made a recovery. Image by Carlos Gautier.

VIDEO: Search Party Stumbles on Bald Eagle in Distress, Saves its Life

As hundreds of boaters and community members searched for missing boater Ernie Sigmon on New Year’s Eve, one crew of boaters found something in the water they weren’t looking for.

A distressed bald eagle was found floating at the surface in the Bay just offshore of Governors Run, south of Dares Beach in southern Maryland. The captain of one volunteer search boat, Stacey Witherow, decided to try and rescue it with the help of his crew aboard, Steven Gray and Carlos Gautier. When they found the eagle, Gautier says it was “in VERY bad shape, freezing, with absolutely no energy.”

The boaters acted quickly, with Gray using the boat’s net to carefully scoop up the eagle and place it on the deck. Gautier had his cell phone camera rolling as the men attempted to save the bird, warming it with coats and bringing it to shore at Chesapeake Beach where a warm SUV and blankets were waiting.

Watch below:

Witherow and his wife drove the eagle to Phoenix Wildlife Center in Baltimore County, Md., north of Towson. While Gautier admitted that all the boaters involved were skeptical about whether the eagle would survive the drive to Phoenix, wildlife rehabilitators say the bird has made a turnaround.

Phoenix Wildlife Center Director Kathleen Woods tells Bay Bulletin the male bird, estimated to be 4-5 years old, is doing much better and is expected to be released at some point. Phoenix has nicknamed the bird Ernie, after the 44-year-old father of two and fishing enthusiast from Calvert County, Md. who disappeared from his boat on Dec. 29.

While the search for Ernie Sigmon is now classified as a recovery mission, the search volunteers who found Ernie the eagle along the way see his recovery as a comfort.

Says Gautier, “To me, ‘Ernie The Eagle’ was simply a source of strength for EVERYONE that was/is involved in finding Ernie. It was already day 3 at that point when we rescued the eagle and I believe it was a perfect sign to keep pushing forward until we brought Ernie home.”

-Meg Walburn Viviano & Cheryl Costello