It was supposed to be the perfect day to celebrate Hollie Spence's 30th birthday. The sky on Saturday over Kodiak, Alaska, was clear and blue. The sun was shining. Temperatures climbed to a relatively warm 60 degrees. So it seemed like an ideal time to kick back with friends and float off a local beach on a 10-foot-long, bright pink flamingo raft.
But the day took a terrifying turn.
As Spence, her two friends and two small dogs got situated in the raft, the winds and currents picked up and swept the flamingo into the frigid waters of Monashka Bay - and toward the Gulf of Alaska.
"I panicked right away," Spence told The Washington Post on Monday night. "We didn't have anything to move ourselves and the wind was strong. My mind went to the worst place."
Over the next hour, the flamingo moved wherever the wind and current took it, eventually snagging against a cluster of rocks covered with sharp barnacles. It soon took on water and slowly began to deflate.
But a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter arrived just in time and Spence, along with her friends and the two dogs, were airlifted to safety.
The ordeal, first reported by the Alaska Landmine, made a stir among locals, many of whom watched from their porches after spotting the bright pink flamingo floating aimlessly. It was an odd sight given that Monashka Bay, which is off the northeast coast of Kodiak Island, is more often used for fishing or kayaking.
"We were outside on our porch, and I saw this giant pink flamingo floating across the bay," Katie Gray, a Kodiak resident, told the Landmine. "It's not a common occurrence. It gets really deep really quickly and it can get rough quickly. The current gets kind of crazy out there."
Although Spence noticed it was a "little windy" on Saturday, she said she wasn't worried because she and her friends had used the raft at the same beach last year with no issues.
"It was so fun," said Spence, a preschool teaching assistant who moved to Kodiak two years ago from Florence, Ore., after her brother, a fisherman, encouraged her to join him there. "So we went out and tried to do the same thing. We should have been more aware of the tides and the wind, but it was kind of like, 'What could go wrong?' "
Around 4 p.m., Spence inflated the raft near the northwest corner of the bay along with her roommate Lepa Sega, 23, and Lepa's brother, Nation Sega, 29. After loading the flamingo's built-in cooler with nonalcoholic drinks and throwing in snacks, blankets, towels and extra clothes in case they got cold, they pushed the raft into the shallow water just off the beach.
Then they joined the dogs, Dallas, a chihuahua, and Ping Ping, a pug, on board. But they soon noticed something was wrong.
"All of a sudden, 30 seconds later, I was like, 'Um, I don't see the bottom of the ocean any more,' " Spence recalled.
The oversized flamingo had been caught in a combination of wind and currents that were sweeping them away from shore. The friends tried and failed to paddle their way closer to shore. Spence said she is "terrified of the ocean" and began to panic, adding that her friends don't know how to swim. She told them to call 911.
By about 5:15 p.m., the raft began drifting toward the rocks farther out in the bay, where Lepa and Nation Sega attempted to pull the raft over to get closer to a resident who was trying throw them a rope. But they failed, and the situation only got worse.
"The flamingo started giving out," Spence said. "I'm not sure if it popped, but it was definitely deflating."
Soon the towels, blankets and clothes got wet, which only further weighed down the raft.
Minutes later, a state trooper's boat arrived, followed by a helicopter from the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station in Kodiak. The helicopter dropped down a rescue swimmer, who paddled over to the group and walked them through a rescue procedure.
"Alaska State Troopers and the [U.S. Coast Guard] worked together to determine that due to the treacherous circumstances, a helicopter hoist was the best option to bring these folks and their animals back to shore, safe and sound," U.S. Coast Guard Alaska wrote on Facebook.
In a video captured by an onlooker, the group was lifted one-by-one in a basket and brought onto the helicopter. They arrived at the Coast Guard's base by about 6:30 p.m., Spence said.
"We were not setting out to go out into the middle of the ocean by any means," Spence said. "We had no plans to be rescued by the Coast Guard. It was a freak accident."
The state troopers recovered the raft, according to KMXT, although Nation Sega told the station that he plans to get it back.
Spence, however, has no plans go on a raft in the ocean again.
"It very much so opened my eyes to how the ocean just doesn't care - it will take you wherever it wants," she said. "I'm just so thankful that the flamingo held up through that and that we are alive."
Despite the traumatic experience, Spence said she already sees the humor in the incident.
"While it was happening it was terrifying, but now I can look back on it and laugh about it just because it was a huge pink flamingo," she said. "Who has a huge pink flamingo? Let alone in Kodiak, Alaska?"
Spence added, "It was an experience I will never in my life forget, ever. Especially since it was my 30th birthday."