Friday, January 25, 2013

The Gowanus Dolphin


Sewage discharge pipes and a lost dolphin

Update: I'm sorry. According to The Times and other sources, the dolphin died before 6pm. Vince was there at the time and he later wrote this post, which is far more to the point than mine, below. 

This is the most-photographed, and  perhaps the saddest, dolphin of the young year. News of its presence in the notoriously polluted Gowanus Canal spread fast after a morning tweet by Red Hook Lobster was picked up by Gothamist, and then The Times.

The canal is a twenty minute walk from home and I was reluctant to go and have a look, thinking it would 1. make me very sad, 2. make me yet another useless gawker and 3. be freezing (it is snowing as I type).

Union Street Bridge

I went. I was sad, I was yet another useless gawker, and it was freezing. News crews packed the cold steel drawbridge at Union Street and so I slid down a side street, not realizing that the poor dolphin - a short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) - would be right there, in front of me, in the horrible chalky muck of the stagnant canal.


It surfaced often, every few seconds, for air, and never left the area right at the end of Sackett Street, moving in sluggish circles and stirring up inky sludge in its wake. The water appeared to be very shallow and there was dark, silty muck on the dolphin's beak and head. The dolphin was very near the landlocked and foul end of the canal, and it was incongruous to see a marine mammal so close to the enormous storm water pipes that deposit raw sewage in the waterway after heavy rains.

Short-beaked dolphin surfacing

More and more people had arrived. They were all quiet and respectful.  As we watched the dolphin an explosion of feathers on the opposite bank caught our attention. A Cooper's Hawk (thank you, JPLatimer for correcting my ID - see comments!] had struck a pigeon in an industrial lot across the road.

Red tailed hawk

It missed, and settled on an upturned tire. Ten feet below it the dolphin surfaced again. Only in New York?



After about an hour the dolphin seemed to be moving more easily than it had at first, more swimming and less wallowing in place, possibly because water levels had been rising due to the effects of an incoming tide - high tide is at 7pm tonight.

View from the Union Street Bridge: dolphin is on left past the bare tree.

Vince went off to see the dolphin, too, very sadly, and reported when he was walking home at 6pm that there was still no sign of a rescue operation. I know. One dolphin. A rescue operation. Our collective guilt at having created this horrible environment. He has worked with dolphins closely in his diving life and could not understand why the animal was not being guided out of the waterway by a small rowing boat. He insists that they are intelligent enough to sense that kind of help, and to follow.


I spoke to a Parks ranger on the scene, who explained that she was there to "monitor the animal's well being" but that this was not a park, so not their jurisdiction.


There was talk of the Riverhead Foundation trying to rescue the dolphin, but no boat, seven hours after the first sighting was reported.


I don't know - we'll find out soon, I suppose. The floating barricades on the canal (to contain surface pollutants or oil?)  might have been hampering the dolphin. The water was very low and it might not have been able to swim beneath them and out.


It is still snowing. The canal will look pretty tomorrow. 

Where will the dolphin be?

Postscript: When Vince was there the dolphin had moved right beneath the Union Street Bridge. So it had managed to swim beneath that floating barrier. I feel so bad. There we were with our cameras, taking pictures of it as it was dying. And dying such an undignified, dirty death. The only comfort in it is that everybody there wanted to help, and no one knew how. 

Updated 01-26-13, the day after: In the City Room section of The New York Times Andy Newman reports on The Hard Decision not to Rescue an Ailing Dolphin, and publishes excerpts from an interview with Robert DiGiovanni, the Riverhead Foundation's director.
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